People who are deaf or have a hearing impairment may be protected from workplace discrimination by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA applies to private employers with at least 15 employees, as well as to state and local government employers. If you are covered by the ADA, an employer may not discriminate against you based on your hearing impairment. You are also entitled to a reasonable accommodation -- changes to the job or workplace that will allow you to do your job -- as long as it doesn't create an undue hardship for your employer.
The ADA protects employees and applicants from disability discrimination. This means an employer may not take action against you (or refuse to hire you in the first place) because you have a disability, you have a history of disability, or the employer perceives you -- even incorrectly -- as having a disability. The ADA defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Because hearing qualifies as a major life activity, you are most likely covered by the ADA if you are deaf or have significant hearing loss.
To be protected, you must be qualified for the job and able to perform its essential functions, with or without a reasonable accommodation. You are qualified for a job if you have the necessary prerequisites, such as a required license, an educational degree, or past experience in the field. The essential functions of the job are the fundamental job duties, rather than tangential or occasional duties. For example, the essential functions of a secretary's position might include scheduling appointments and typing and sending correspondence. If the secretaries in an office must occasionally fill in for the receptionist during the lunch hour, answering phones and directing visitors, that would not be an essential job function.
A reasonable accommodation is a modification to the job or workplace that will allow an employee to do a job despite a disability. Possible accommodations for employees with hearing loss might include providing TTY telephone equipment or a telephone headset, providing a sign language interpreter on occasion (for example, at a large conference where many people will be speaking from different areas of the room, making lip reading difficult), making communication devices and software available, and providing equipment with visual or sensory alerts (such as a telephone that vibrates or lights up when ringing, or an alert system with a flashing light as well as a siren). (For more information on reasonable accommodations for deafness and hearing loss, check out this factsheet from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.)
An employer need not provide a reasonable accommodation if it would constitute an undue hardship: significant difficulty or expense, given the cost of the accommodation, the size and financial resources of the employer, and the effect the accommodation would have on the business. An accommodation often poses an undue hardship because of its expense. However, an accommodation might also be an undue hardship because it would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the business. For example, a library clerk with some hearing loss might request that a loud bell (with vibration) and a speaker be added tot he telephone, which would enable him to hear and answer calls. Although the accommodation is probably inexpensive, it would also disturb patrons and destroy the quiet atmosphere of the library, which makes it an undue hardship.
Steps to Take
You might consider contacting a lawyer if:
- you were turned down for a job for which you were qualified based on your hearing impairment
- you are being harassed because of your hearing impairment
- you were denied a promotion, raise, transfer, bonus, or other job benefit because of your hearing impairment
- you were fired because of your hearing impairment, or
- you were denied a reasonable accommodation for your hearing impairment.
If you believe you have been discriminated against, you should write down each incident. Record the date, the time, where in the workplace it occurred, who else was present, and what everyone said or did. If you decide to file a legal claim against your employer, this documentation will be invaluable proof of what happened.
Follow your company's procedure for making an internal complaint of discrimination or harassment. If it doesn't have a procedure, go to the human resources department and ask to make a formal complaint. Sometimes, mistreatment is caused by simple ignorance of the law or insensitivity to the needs of employees with disabilities. If you are facing this type of situation, complaining to the HR department may solve the problem.
Beyond the Workplace
If your internal complaints don't resolve the problem, or if you don't have access to an internal complaint process (for example, because you were not hired based on your disability), you may file a charge of discrimination with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or a similar state agency. At this point, you should seriously consider speaking to a lawyer. A lawyer can help you evaluate the facts and decide whether you have a good claim. A lawyer can also help you file the charge, negotiate with the employer, and, if necessary, file a lawsuit for disability discrimination.