ADA and the hearing impaired: What employers should know

Is an employee at your company hearing impaired? Have they requested that you provide assistive listening devices so they can hear better during loud meetings?

If so, you should know that The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal civil rights law requiring all businesses, nonprofits, and government organizations (both state and local) to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with communication disabilities.

These ‘communication disabilities’ include visual impairments, speech disabilities, and the focus of today’s article, hearing loss.

60.7 million Americans aged 12 or older experience partial or total hearing loss, and studies have also shown that approximately 28.8 million Americans would benefit from hearing aids.

These statistics convey how surprisingly common hearing loss is, so it’s important to know the employment laws related to it.

Under the ADA, it’s illegal to discriminate against the hearing impaired in the workplace. This means you cannot refuse to hire, fire, or exclude someone from specific responsibilities if they have a hearing disability.

If you have employees with hearing disabilities, you may be legally required to provide them with reasonable accommodations like sign language interpreters and assistive listening systems.

Yet, not every case is cut and dry.

There are specific requirements employees with trouble hearing must meet to be protected under the ADA (and to be able to request accommodations).

Moreover, organizations are not always required to provide the accommodations that an employee requests if doing so would cause undue hardship on their business, but we’ll explore this further later.

There’s clearly a lot to know about ADA’s protections for the hearing impaired, so stay tuned to learn more.

The different levels of hearing loss

Before we explore what ADA has to say about accommodating disabled employees, it’s essential to understand the varying degrees of hearing loss, which are:

  • Mild hearing loss is when an individual has difficulty following speech in noisy environments. They may also struggle to follow speech patterns for long periods. These individuals don’t tend to wear hearing aids, but they do experience difficulty communicating with others during daily activities (and at work).
  • Moderate hearing loss makes it very difficult for individuals to hear speech if there’s any type of background noise. These individuals also struggle to keep up with group conversations. It’s more likely that employees with moderate hearing loss will wear hearing aids, but they may still have difficulty hearing others in noisy environments.
  • Severe hearing loss is when an individual can barely decipher speech, even when there’s no background noise present, even with the assistance of hearing aids. As a result, these individuals resort to lipreading, sign language, and using assistive technology like conversation listeners and captioned telephones.
  • Profound deafness is where someone has almost no trace of hearing at all. People who are deaf may still use hearing aids to help them discern the direction where sounds come from. However, they tend to rely on sign language and lipreading to communicate. Cochlear implants are also an option for some deaf employees. While these implants do not restore normal hearing, they allow an individual’s brain to process sound and speech.

Now that you’re familiar with the different levels of hearing loss, let’s learn what ADA has to say about the matter.

ADA overview on communication disabilities

The ADA requires all Title II entities (state and local governments) and Title III entities (businesses and nonprofits) to find ways to communicate effectively with employees who have communication disabilities (including hearing loss).

The goal is to ensure that communication with disabled employees is as effective as communication with non-disabled employees.

Companies must make every effort to work with and accommodate employees with hearing disabilities.

Yet, as previously mentioned, the ADA protects employees with hearing loss only if they meet specific requirements.

For federal law to consider a person ‘disabled,’ their disability must substantially limit or prohibit major life activities.

Employees who experience profound deafness are always protected under the ADA since their disability permanently impairs their hearing and communication, which are major life activities.

However, the other varying degrees of hearing loss are where things get trickier.

For instance, the EEOC (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) may determine that an employee with mild hearing loss does not have a protected disability under the ADA. This is likely the case if the employee can’t provide proper records of impairment proving that their hearing troubles interfere with major life activities.

Even if an employee is hearing-aid compatible, they must first prove the validity of their disability to the EEOC before they can request accommodations from your organization.

For employees with hearing loss listed as an official medical condition, proving their disability is easier since they’ll have official documentation to provide to the EEOC.

Other employees, especially those who have yet to receive an official diagnosis of presbycusis or tinnitus (or other hearing loss conditions), may have difficulty proving their condition to the EEOC.

Suppose an employee has an officially recognized hearing disability by the EEOC, and your organization employs more than 15 people (Title I). In that case, you must provide ‘auxiliary aids and services’ to ensure effective communication with them.

Auxiliary aids & services for hearing-impaired employees under the ADA

Auxiliary aids is the term ADA uses to describe all the ways organizations can communicate with employees who have hearing disabilities.

While there are auxiliary aids and services for all communication disabilities (i.e., visual and speech impairments), we will only focus on public accommodations for hearing loss.

Here are the auxiliary aids and services ADA recommends employers provide to employees experiencing difficulty hearing:

  • Providing a qualified notetaker. Designating an employee as a qualified notetaker during important meetings will help employees with hearing loss catch up on details they may have missed. It may also help provide printed stock speech scripts, such as a museum tour or customer service phone scripts.
  • Using interpreting services. Severe hearing loss may require professional sign language interpreters, oral interpreters, or cued-speech interpreters. The type of interpreter needed will depend on the type and severity of the hearing loss experienced by the employee. Employees with mild hearing loss may require oral interpreters, while those with profound deafness tend to use sign language interpreters.
  • Telecommunications relay service. It’s common for individuals with hearing disabilities to use text telephones or teletypewriters (TTY). There’s also a free nationwide telecommunications relay service callers can use to better communicate with others. It introduces callers to relay operators who act as intermediaries for conversations. They relay what’s said between both parties to ensure seamless communication and understanding.
  • Communication access real-time translation (CART). This form of technical assistance is similar to court stenography (or closed captioning for movies and TV shows), as a transcriptionist will record everything said during a meeting or conference call. Hearing-impaired employees can refer to these transcripts to ensure they understand and retain everything said during critical events. Since the transcription takes place in real time, it allows for seamless, instant communication between hearing-impaired employees and their coworkers.
  • Video relay service (VRS). If you plan on doing Zoom calls with deaf employees who use sign language, you may benefit from using a video relay service. It’s where both parties are connected to a VRS interpreter who relays what’s being said via speech and sign language. They let the employer know what the employee is signing, and then they let the employee know what the employer says.

These are the primary accommodations ADA lays out for employees with hearing loss. Once again, the idea is to mitigate any difficulty to ensure communication with disabled employees is equally effective as with non-disabled employees.

Which accommodations you choose will depend on several factors, including employee preferences.

Sometimes, VRS isn’t possible, such as when an employee who’s hard of hearing also has difficulty viewing digital screens. In these cases, you’ll need to hire an on-site interpreter.

When can employers refuse to provide accommodations?

It’s important to note that the ADA requires entities to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees.

The word reasonable matters here, as not every accommodation qualifies as such.

In particular, you won’t have to provide accommodations that will cause hardship or burden your business.

What does this mean?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, undue hardship causes significant difficulty or expense to an organization. The law considers an employer’s operation’s size, type, and budget when determining undue hardship, judging each case individually.

For example, a large employer with a considerable budget would have an easier time providing expensive accommodations like on-site interpreters and assistive technology.

Conversely, smaller employers may lack the budget necessary to provide such accommodations, so they’d qualify as undue hardship.

You should consider the accommodations that your organization can realistically provide to disabled employees. That way, should an employee request accommodations in the future, you’ll already know what’s feasible for you and what isn’t.

How can employers better accommodate employees with hearing loss?

Now that you know what has to say on the matter, let’s explore some ways that employers can more effectively communicate with hearing-impaired staff:

  • Ensure you have their attention. Before you start speaking at a meeting or to a large group of coworkers, signal for everyone’s attention. This will let employees who are hard of hearing know that they should pay close attention to what’s being said. If you don’t take this step, they may miss important details affecting their job performance.
  • Speak clearly and use normal lip movements. If you speak too quickly or use minimal lip movements, employees who lipread will have difficulty understanding you. Make a conscious effort to speak clearly while using normal lip movements.
  • Don’t cover your mouth when speaking. Speaking of lipreading employees, covering your mouth when speaking is something to avoid.
  • Ensure that what you’re saying is understood. After every few sentences or so, check that your team is paying attention and understanding what’s being said.
  • Try saying things in a different way. If your hearing-impaired staff is having trouble understanding what you’re saying, try saying it in a different way. In particular, use simple, concise language as much as possible when speaking to your team.
  • Speak in well-lit areas that are free from distractions. The last thing you want to do is speak to employees with hearing loss in dimly lit areas with lots of movement. Ideally, you should conduct your meetings in quiet, well-lit areas to ensure proper lipreading.

Wrapping up: ADA and the hearing impaired

By now, you should better understand the ADA’s protections for employees with hearing loss.

As long as an employee’s hearing loss affects major life activities, they’re protected from discrimination under federal law.

Beyond that, federal law may require you to provide reasonable accommodations. This may include interpreters and assistive technology to ensure effective communication (unless these accommodations cause undue hardship).

You’ll boost their productivity and morale by properly accommodating employees with hearing loss. It’s always worth setting them up for success.

More Resources:
ADA can require reasonable accommodations for anxiety, in some cases
ADA Accommodations for ADHD: Reasonable accommodations & legal protections
Is addiction a disability under the ADA?