With nearly 15% of American adults (age 18 and over) experiencing some degree of hearing loss, it’s very possible that someday you will have an employee with this impairment.
Due to the stigma of disability in the workplace, it can be difficult for employees experiencing hearing loss to feel confident in their employment, even when it doesn’t affect their quality of work. It’s your job to ensure you understand and protect their rights as a worker and help them feel respected and successful.
Their Rights under American Law
Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in all aspects of employment. Employees with hearing loss are covered under this act.
This means it is illegal to treat an employee with hearing loss in a manner that indicates you value them less than any other employee. They are entitled to the same fair procedures, opportunities, and compensation as all others. If there is reason to doubt they are being treated equally, your company could face investigation and legal action.
Every company is required to understand the rights of disabled workers and ensure the ADA is followed. Managers and others in positions of hiring should be trained to understand these rights. You are also required to post a notice of the provisions of the ADA in an easy-to-see place in your workplace.
Rights of Job Applicants
Employee rights for those with disabilities begin during the hiring process. Under the ADA, it is illegal to
- ask a job candidate if they have hearing loss or use a hearing device,
- ask a candidate’s references or another third party about their hearing loss,
- require a candidate to disclose any disabilities, or
- deny employment based solely on hearing impairment.
However, if you reasonably suspect a candidate has hearing loss, you may ask general questions about their ability to do the job for which you’re hiring. If the impairment is obvious or disclosed, you may also ask if a candidate would require any accommodations to allow them to do the job.
You may reject their candidacy if they cannot do the job with reasonable accommodations or are unfit for the job in matters unrelated to the hearing loss.
Rights of Employees
Generally speaking, you cannot question employees about medical conditions. Job performance is the only context under which an employer can do so legally. You may ask an employee about their hearing loss only if:
- an employee has disclosed the hearing loss and displays performance problems reasonably related to that impairment,
- you suspect hearing loss is affecting job performance,
- hearing loss is preventing an employee from doing their job safely,
- you need more information to fulfill an accommodation, or
- you need to verify the use of sick time related to hearing loss.
Unrelated poor performance is not cause to question an employee about a medical condition. All communication of medical information must be kept confidential, per the law.
The ADA requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to make work possible for disabled employees. You should respectfully and privately communicate with employees about how to best accommodate their particular hearing impairment so they can be successful in their job without causing undue hardship to the company.
The request for a hearing loss accommodation does not have to go through any specific procedure and can come from the employee or a friend, family member, or another representative of the person.
Employees do not have the right to receive an accommodation that would be significantly difficult or expensive to the company. Employers are not required to eliminate vital tasks from a job or provide hearing devices that are used both on and off the job, such as hearing aids. If an employee proves unable to perform a job safely and adequately without extreme accommodations for their hearing loss, it is legal to terminate them.
Supporting your employees
Employees work best when they receive proper support from their companies. You may not know much about hearing loss yourself, but respectful communication with your hearing-impaired employee and some basic information about their rights in the workplace will go a long way.
The bottom line is that all employees, no matter their medical histories, should be treated equally. And if you still have questions about hearing loss, Virtual Hearing Solutions can help you find the answers!