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The ADA: How it Protects the Civil Rights of Those with Hearing Loss

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) made it illegal to discriminate against those with disabilities. This means employers and public entities are required by law to provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities that severely or significantly restrict a major life activity.

While the original law only included deafness as a disability and not more widespread hearing loss, an amendment to the law, known as the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), further expanded the definition of “disability” and added specific examples of the major life activities impacted. The expanded list includes hearing, ensuring those with hearing loss are fully protected against discrimination. But what does this mean exactly for those with hearing difficulties?

Finding a job

The ADA includes strict guidelines around what an employer can ask a job applicant in an interview about their disability to ensure they aren’t dismissed because of their hearing loss. Even if a candidate discloses that they have hearing loss upfront, or has visible hearing aids, employers are not permitted to ask questions like whether they have a medical condition that caused the hearing loss. However, an employer can ask about the candidate’s ability to perform the essential functions of the position, with or without reasonable accommodations.

If a candidate discloses their hearing loss after being given a job offer, the employer can ask about their ability to do the job, or even request documentation from a doctor that they’re qualified to do the job. Still, they can’t withdraw the job offer as long as the person is able to do the job safely.

Accommodations at work

Under the ADA, employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with hearing loss, pending undue hardship like significant difficulty or expense. Some reasonable accommodations to help those with hearing loss include:

  • Assistive computer software, like a telecommunications relay service to provides text transcriptions of phone calls
  • Assistive listening devices, such as a personal FM system that enables the employee to hear who is taking via a receiver in their ear
  • Work area adjustments, like moving an employee with hearing loss from a noisy or high-traffic part of the office to a quieter location

In addition, the ADA prohibits offensive conduct against those with disabilities. Incidents like offensive jokes, name-calling, intimidation, ridicule, or mockery for someone because of their hearing loss are all considered offensive conduct.

Public accommodations

The ADA also requires that public entities, including public transportation and commercial and medical facilities, be accessible for those with disabilities and provide reasonable accommodation. In terms of hearing loss, that can mean providing sign language interpreters in medical and legal settings, or equipping public venues with smoke detectors or other alarm systems that include flashing lights rather than just sound. Another example is the use of induction loop systems on trains and buses and at airports, stations, and train platforms so important announcements are heard directly via a person’s hearing aids.

In addition to public accommodations, the ADA makes it illegal to discriminate against those with hearing loss by denying service. Still, in some cases, the venue might not be aware that its practices aren’t inclusive of people with difficulty hearing. In that case, the individual can request specific accommodations, or work with the other party to determine an alternative.

Knowing your rights

The ADA and ADAAA were established to ensure people with disabilities like hearing loss have the same rights and protections as everyone else, both at work and in their everyday lives. While much progress has been made in making the world more accommodating for those with hearing loss, you might find instances in which a business or public entity fails to comply. If so, the U.S. Department of Justice provides guidance on how to file a complaint of possible discrimination and help to prevent it from happening to others with hearing loss.

*DISCLAIMER: Information provided in this blog post should not be taken as legal advice. If you have a concern related to your rights under the ADA or ADAAA, speak to an employment attorney.