Most people today know what the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is, but some may not realize that this landmark legislation - which has just marked its 20th anniversary - has vastly improved the lives of people with all kinds of physical and mental disabilities, including hearing loss.
On July 26, President Obama celebrated the milestone by signing an executive order to make the federal government a "model employer" of people with disabilities, including hearing impairments. The Department of Justice will publish two new rules protecting disability-based discrimination by more than 80,000 state and local government entities, and 7 million private businesses.
In a nutshell, this law, passed in 1990, made it illegal to discriminate against the disabled. It was aimed not only at employers – those with 15 or more employees were required to comply with the ADA regulations - but also at any public entity or place. For example, public buildings were required to provide wheelchair-friendly access ramps, and – of special interest to the hearing impaired – hotels and other public accommodations had to install telecommunication devices for the deaf (TDDs) – at no extra cost to the user.
Many persons with hearing loss do not realize they may be covered by the ADA in their workplace or public facilities.
The Amendment Act Kind to Hearing Loss
As is often the case with complex legislation that covers a lot of bases, the interpretation of the ADA was not without flaws. On numerous occasions, for instance, the Supreme Court set demanding standards for what conditions could be considered as "disabilities" under the law.
In the process, people with a wide range of impairments – including, in some cases, hearing loss – had sometimes been disqualified from the ADA coverage.
To remedy the obvious loopholes, former President George W. Bush signed, in September 2008, the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) into law. This amendment gives a broader definition of what a "disability" is, thus eliminating subjective interpretations and offering greater protection to disabled individuals.
Hearing Loss: How ADA Covers It
We know what you are thinking: Hearing loss is NOT a disability! After all, it is treatable, and hearing aids allow you to lead a full and normal life.
However, the law stipulates that a "disability" - for purposes of the ADA - is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially "limits a major life activity."
Basing itself on the assumption that people who can't hear are limited in "life activities," that ADA makes certain provisions regarding services that must be provided to those who are deaf or severely hearing impaired.
For example, one of the services mandated by the law is that a qualified sign language interpreter be provided when a hearing disabled person has to convey important information to a third party – for example, when communicating with a doctor or other health care providers.
The ADAAA goes into more detail than the ADA in its definition of a "major life activity," as well as "major bodily functions." The former include manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working. The former encompasses, among other functions, the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive system.
Still not clear on whether your hearing loss can be considered a "disability" under the ADA / ADAAA?
These two examples, cited on the ADA website, will hopefully shed some light:
Example 1: "A job applicant has a bilateral, moderate hearing impairment that affects the transmission of lower frequencies of sound to her brain. As a result, she has difficulty hearing in conversations because vowel sounds tend to occur at lower frequencies that she cannot distinguish. She often must ask others to speak slower or louder, or to repeat statements she did not initially hear or understand. This applicant is substantially limited in hearing.
If an individual uses mitigating measures, such as hearing aids, cochlear implants, or other devices that actually improve hearing, these measures must be considered in determining whether the individual has a disability under the ADA. Even someone who uses a mitigating measure may have a disability if the measure does not correct the condition completely and substantial limitations remain, or if the mitigating measure itself imposes substantial limitations.
Example 2: An individual with a hearing impairment uses a hearing aid to amplify sounds. With the hearing aid, he can detect sounds such as traffic, sirens, and loud conversations at a very low level. For this reason, he must be in close proximity to the origin of sound in order to hear in a meaningful way. This individual is substantially limited in hearing even with the mitigating measure (i.e., the hearing aid).
Measures that merely compensate for the fact that someone has a substantially limiting hearing loss but that do not actually improve hearing, such as sign language interpreters or lip-reading, are not mitigating measures. Furthermore, if an individual does not use mitigating measures, then the hearing impairment must be considered as it exists, without speculation about how a mitigating measure might lessen the hearing loss."
More hearing-related examples and explanations can be found on the ADA government website: www.eeoc.gov.
If you have hearing loss or suspect you may have hearing loss, discuss questions you may have on the ADA with your hearing professional. To find a hearing professional near you visit Healthy Hearing's Find a Hearing Professional section.