Know your rights: hearing loss, hearing aids and everything in between
Historically, the world has had its share of champions for the deaf and hearing impaired. In 1500, Girolamo Cardano was the first physician to acknowledge deaf individuals had the ability to reason. In 1755, Samuel Heinicke established the first oral school for the deaf in Germany and in 1777 a German pastor named Arnoldi advocated for education of the deaf to begin at age four. Alexander Graham Bell opened speech school for teachers of the deaf in 1872. In 1976, the Federal Communications Commission addressed the issue of closed captioning and in 1980 Sears, Roebuck and Co began selling decoders for closed captioning.
But perhaps the most significant legislative hero of the deaf and hearing impaired in modern times may be the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed into law in 1990. The legislation, along with other legal protections enacted before and after it, works to benefit all disabled individuals in the United States. The following FAQs are a brief example of your rights as a deaf or hearing impaired individual.
As an employee
Q: Can an employer ask if I have a hearing impairment in a job interview?
A: No. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), potential employers may not ask about your medical condition or require you to have medical examination before offering you a position.
They can; however, ask specific questions about your ability to perform essential functions of the job, such as whether you have good communication skills, can perform in a fast-paced, noisy environment or can meet legally mandated safety standards.
Q: Is my employer required to provide any accommodations for my hearing loss?
A: Yes, as long as it isn’t too difficult or expensive to make the adjustment. Accommodations might include providing a sign language interpreter for conferences or other meetings. It may also include providing assistive listening systems, such as a captioned telephone, computer software or strobe light emergency alarms.
If you require a workplace adjustment to accommodate your hearing impairment, talk to your employer. Be prepared to provide more information about your disability from a medical professional or family member.
Q: Is my employer required to provide hearing protection for me on the job?
A: Yes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), occupational hearing loss is the most common work-related illness in the United States. Approximately 22 million employees are exposed to dangerous noise levels at work and an estimated $242 million is spent annually on workman’s compensation for hearing loss disability.
These are only a few reasons why the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) require employers provide an effective hearing conservation program for its employees if workplace noise levels exceed 85 decibels in an 8-hour time frame.
This program should contain monitoring, audiometric testing, hearing protection devices (HPD), employee training and education, and recordkeeping. Hearing protection devices must be provided to all employees at no cost and replaced as necessary.
If you believe your rights have been violated, file a Title 1 complaint with the EEOC within 180 days of the date of the discrimination. You may file a lawsuit in Federal court after you have received a “right to sue” letter from the EEOC.
As a parent
Q: What types of services can my deaf or hearing impaired child expect from the public school system?
A: Your child is protected under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Thanks to this legislation, the public school your child attends must provide hearing assistive systems to accommodate his hearing impairment. This may include interpreters, special equipment, or room accommodations. Talk to your school administrator about your child’s specific needs.
Children who qualify as disabled under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, are also entitled to participate in all non-academic and extracurricular activities of the school. This may include physical recreation classes, recreational activities, and special interest groups and clubs sponsored by the school.
If you believe your school has violated your child’s Section 504 rights, file a complaint with the school’s Section 504 coordinator or the U.S. Department of Education.
As a consumer
Q: Are hearing centers required to provide a trial period for hearing aids?
A: No – although most manufacturers offer a trial period during which the hearing instrument can be returned for a refund. Some states do require a 30-day trial period, but before you purchase, be sure to discuss this with your hearing healthcare professional. If one is provided, ask what fees, if any, are nonrefundable if you decide to return the hearing aids. If a warranty is included, ask what is covered and if it can be extended.
Q: Does the ADA require theaters and museums to provide services for the deaf and hearing impaired?
A: It depends. Theaters with fixed seating for more than 50 people must provide hearing assistive services for the hearing impaired. Closed captioning and rear-window captioning are available for the deaf in select theater locations, but are not required under the law.
Museums are required to provide assistive listening systems for the hearing impaired, but not sign language interpretation or closed captioning – although some do as a courtesy to their deaf patrons. Many times, these services can be provided free of charge or for a nominal fee with advance notice.
Examples of other public places which are required to provide assistive hearing systems for hearing impaired individuals include hospitals, concert/lecture halls, stadiums, court rooms, hotel conference rooms, convention centers and nursing homes.
Q: What can I do if I believe I have experienced discrimination?
A: File a Title III complaint by sending a letter to the Department of Justice. Your letter must include:
- Your full name, address and telephone number along with the name of the party discriminated against;
- The name of the business, organization or institution you believe has discriminated;
- A description of the discrimination, the dates it occurred, and the names of the individuals involved with the discrimination;
- Any additional information or copies of documents that support your complaint.
Sign and send your letter to:
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Civil Rights Division
Disability Rights - NYAVE
Washington, D.C. 20530
For the most part, employers, business owners and educators are concerned about providing safe, accessible environments for the people they serve so if you need assistance, ask for it first. If they are unwilling to provide services you believe you are entitled to, follow up by contacting the appropriate advocate.