Accommodations at Work for Hearing Loss
The number of people with hearing loss in the United States has doubled over the past 15 years, and a significant percentage are either employed or job-seekers. If you’re one of them, your hearing loss presents a challenge, not only to you but to employers. This leaves you with three options with regards to informing potential and current employers of your hearing challenges:
Before you decide which option you want to pursue, make sure you understand your rights to reasonable accommodations and know what assistive devices are available to help you succeed on the job.
Seeking employment and hard of hearing
The following are typical concerns expressed by people looking for jobs who have hearing loss significant enough to raise concerns:
Q Do I have to tell a potential employer I’ll need an accommodation during the application/interview process?
A No, you don’t. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), you aren’t required to disclose any medical procedures, use of hearing aids, or related health conditions as a job applicant.
Q If I need an accommodation during my interview, should I ask for it?
A Yes. If you need help to hold a successful interview, then you should request a sign language interpreter or whatever else you might need, within reason. However, at the point of disclosure, a potential employer is then free to ask if you will require further accommodation to perform the job.
Q What questions can an employer ask me during the application/interview process with regards to hearing loss and my ability to do a job?
A An employer might be limited in what they can ask you regarding how you’re treating your hearing loss, but there are questions regarding your ability to perform “essential functions” they’re allowed to ask, such as:
Can you respond quickly to instructions in a noisy, fast-paced environment?
Do you have good communication skills?
Are you able to meet legally required safety standards to perform these duties?
You should answer these questions honestly, keeping in mind that a perfectly valid response is, “Yes, with reasonable accommodation.” It might help to familiarize yourself with available accommodations for the job you’re applying to by visiting the EEOC website, keeping in mind under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) a potential employer must enable you to participate in the application process on an equal footing with hearing candidates.
Q If after I’m hired I disclose my hearing loss (with or without a need for accommodations) for the first time, can my employer change their mind about hiring me?
A No, but a caveat applies: an employer can’t just withdraw their offer because you disclose your hearing difficulties if you can perform the necessary functions of the job with or without accommodation unless your hearing loss directly threatens the safety of yourself or others, and the risk cannot be mitigated by reasonable accommodations.
Employed and lost your hearing
People who are already employed typically express the following concerns:
Q If I didn’t let my employer know about my hearing loss and need for accommodations during the interview process, when should I inform them?
A You’ll ultimately have to determine this for yourself, but should ask as soon as you perceive you’re having difficulty performing a job function. Whether that’s immediately or years have passed since hiring doesn’t matter, but it’s advisable to do so before you receive a negative performance review.
Q What constitutes a “reasonable” accommodation for hearing loss under the ADA?
A Employers are expected to provide accommodations that allow you to match the same performance levels as hearing co-workers in equal positions and enjoy the benefits/perks of employment available to all other employees. For example, management has to enable you to receive informal information communicated to the workplace, make it possible for you to fully participate in meetings, social gatherings, and other employer-sponsored events, and advance professionally. On the other hand, employers can deny any request for an accommodation that would be significantly difficult or expensive to implement. And it’s ultimately your employer, not you, who gets to decide whether your requested accommodation is approved — they can also elect to utilize a cheaper, simpler alternative. The following aren’t considered “reasonable” accommodations legally:
Eliminating a fundamental job function
Lowering production standards
Overlooking code of conduct and other rules violations
Providing personal use devices, like hearing aids
Q What should I do if my co-workers or boss make jokes or hassle me because of my hearing difficulties?
A The ADA prohibits harassing behavior based on disability if and when the jokes, name calling, and similar bad behaviors become so frequent or serious that they create a hostile environment. If this occurs, or if you are demoted or lose your position and can prove that it was based on your hearing loss, you can file an employment discrimination charge against your employer.
While your employer cannot require you to address your hearing loss, wearing hearing aids sends a positive message. It says you’re willing to do whatever it takes to succeed by taking proactive action. Hearing better prevents misunderstandings during critical exchanges with customers, co-workers, and managers. Studies have found that most hard of hearing employees experienced significant improvements in their ability to communicate effectively in most job situations by wearing hearing aids. And if you’re concerned that wearing hearing aids will signal to potential or current employers that you’re “old” or “infirm” please remember that many of the hearing aids available today are so small, they can be nearly invisible to others. Wearing hearing aids is also less noticeable than constantly asking for things to be repeated! So, whether you’re searching for a job or concerned about keeping the one you have, wearing hearing aids can provide significant advantages.
Lisa Klop AU.D. is an Educational Specialist for Signia brand hearing aids. She is responsible for training customers and sales staff on the brand’s current technology and products. She conducts training sessions in customers’ offices, remotely, via webinars, and at regional and national events. Areas of particular expertise include hearing assistive technology and the fitting of kids and teens. Prior to joining Signia (then Siemens Hearing Instruments) in 2012, she operated a private dispensing practice for six years. Other clinical experience includes hospital, ENT, and non-profit clinics. Lisa obtained her doctorate degree in Audiology from Central Michigan University in 2005.