I recently had some illness related hearing issues and found myself in a position of not being able to hear what was being said to me, especially in a crowded room. This got me to thinking about the challenges of employees who, due to illness or age, have acquired hearing related problems. How does an employer deal with such an employee?
Not a small issue
According to the EEOC:
In 2011, a study led by researchers from Johns Hopkins reported that nearly 20% of Americans 12 and older have hearing loss so severe that it may make communication difficult. The study also found that 30 million Americans (12.7% of the population) had hearing loss in both ears while 48 million Americans (20.3% of the population) had hearing loss in one ear. According to 2010 data from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), approximately 17% of American adults (36 million people) report some degree of hearing loss. Of this group, 18% of American adults between the ages of 45 and 64 have experienced some degree of hearing loss NIDCD estimates that approximately 15% of Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 (26 million people) have high frequency hearing loss due to exposure to loud sounds or noise at work or in leisure activities.
As you can see this is a much bigger issue than you might have expected.
Obviously not being able to hear, either clearly or at all, is a disability. Subsequently individuals in such a situation have some protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Employees who acquire hearing problems may be more of a challenge to employers than deaf candidates for jobs may be. One of the tenets of the ADA is that the employee (or candidate) must be able to perform the essential functions of the job. With the already working employee, who now has hearing problems, they have already proven that they are able to perform the essential functions of the job minus the disability. That puts a heavier burden on the employer of proving the employee can no longer perform the job and it means that employers need to be much more willing and open to different accommodations.
How do you know?
How do you know if an employee has a hearing issue? First they may tell you. A good number of my associates knew I have a hearing issue because I told them. However, some others may be hesitant to be that direct. If you notice they have to ask you to repeat things; or it seems like they are ignoring you if you are speaking from behind them; they are responsible for taking calls and their productivity has fallen off; then you may have someone that now has a hearing related problem. Pay attention to that. That may be your signal that they are having problems and might be a good candidate for discussion to determine if they need some accommodation to improve their performance. The ADAAA requires a documented, interactive discussion with employees about their disability and required accommodation. Failing to recognize, or failing to even address the issue can be the route to an unwanted discrimination charge.
Help is available
With the scope of the hearing issues in this country, indeed around the world, there are plenty of resources for help in determining the appropriate accommodation. Technology is making great strides in providing solutions as well. Here are some resources:
National Association for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology Deaf TEC
4 Game-Changing Technologies For The Deaf And Hard Of Hearing
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