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Hearing Loss, the ADA, and Discrimination

Although the ADA prohibits discrimination against those with disabilities, I would argue that invisible disabilities, such as hearing loss, can be unintentionally discriminated against. Is this intentional? Doubtful. Why does it occur?

There is an overall lack of understanding of the compensatory behaviors that hearing impaired individuals use. These behaviors create misperceptions about competencies.

An example is using email vs using the phone. Yes, even with Bluetooth, we are often not quite comfortable with the phone. Why? We depend on facial expressions to help us understand the conversation.

An email is a legal document. Thus, the email informing a team that a project is over budget or that a ball has been dropped, now documents YOUR mistake. Others have the same conversations over the phone, but documentation is not produced, therefore, solutions are worked through verbally without leaving a so called “paper trail.”

The consequences of the paper trail can wreak havoc downstream when performance reviews occur. Who gets dinged for balls that have been dropped? Yep, the one who has created a legal document. Essentially, by creating this document (email), it unintentionally frames the hearing impaired individual as potentially incompetent.

Does this mean one should dig a hole and stick one’s hearing aids in the ground? Absolutely not! Should you stop writing emails? Not necessarily, however it does behoove one to word emails a bit more cautiously.

What can a hearing impaired individual do to prevent unintended discrimination from occurring in this particular situation?

The answer may surprise you! Document ahead of time that writing an email (vs using the phone), serves as a reasonable accommodation. Briefly mention how e-mail can be misinterpreted. Gain agreement from supervisors and HR that if this occurs it will be discussed upfront vs being a surprise “needs help,” area during one’s annual review. Not only will this help you, it will also help educate others around this compensatory behavior. Remember, you are always your best advocate.


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