Thursday, June 12, 2008

Protecting Rights of People With Hearing Loss - What Does the Law Say?

By Jennifer Millman. Date Posted: March 07, 2008

How many people have hearing loss? More than 31.5 million people have a self-described "hearing difficulty," according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). But that number is expected to increase as the baby-boomer generation approaches age 65. Adults 65 and older have the highest percentage of hearing loss compared with other age groups.

But there is substantial diversity among those who are deaf or hard of hearing. They come from all ages, races/ethnicities, genders and orientations and have varying degrees of disability. "Protecting civil rights of people who deaf and hard of hearing requires that this diversity in relation to hearing loss be acknowledged," said David Alexander, director of the Division of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

The conference outlined some of the main concerns and problems facing people with deafness and hearing loss in employment, public accommodations, government service, entertainment, schools, housing and other areas, as well as how to prevent discrimination.

It happens frequently. Read 'Second-Class Citizen': Deaf Mother of 3 Denied Service at Restaurant for one deaf woman's story about being denied service at an Illinois fast-food restaurant. Karen Putz tried to explain to a drive-through attendant that she needed to communicate her order through the window rather than the speaker because she couldn't hear through the speaker, but the attendant ended up threatening to call the police because she was "holding up the line," slamming the window in her face.

In the employment realm, the reality is that there's no law to guarantee hiring and promotion of people with disabilities on par with their representation in the talent pool, and corporate lawyers can be creative when it comes to finding loopholes in existing civil-rights laws. While the law prohibits discrimination against all people with disabilities, the panelists said infrastructure change is needed to make real progress.

Good companies do a good job of recruiting and retaining a diverse work force--diversity as it relates to age, race/ethnicity, gender, disability and orientation--and their workplace cultures reflect that inclusiveness, said J. Frank Vespa-Papaleo, director of the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights. "These companies do it right from the beginning," Vespa-Papaleo explained.

Check out DiversityInc's Top 10 Companies for People With Disabilities to learn how these employers make inroads and tap into this talented, often under-utilized work force.

What Does the Law Say?

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities, including deafness and hearing loss. Title I of the ADA addresses employment, covering private employers with 15 or more employees and similarly sized state and local government employers. Most states also have their own discrimination laws that include disability, and these statutes may provide even more protections than those afforded by federal law.

The conference kicked off with introductions and legal training on the state and federal level as it relates to disability law and reasonable accommodations, which is one of the blurriest areas of all civil-rights laws. At what point does accommodating someone's disability, such as requesting a sign-language interpreter for a person with hearing loss, become an "undue burden" on the employer? It depends on the size of the employer, access to and cost of equipment, the type of accommodation requested and how it relates to an individual's ability to perform the essential functions of a job, for example.

Each case must be evaluated on an individual basis because an individual employee's view of what is "reasonable" often differs from that held by the employer. Find out why disability is the most complex of EEO laws from a former EEOC chair and DiversityInc's legal expert. These are tough questions. Get EEOC guidelines.

Download the division's guide to disability discrimination to learn more. (access by clicking on the lighthouse icon in the post title) Also check out the fact sheet on rights for people with hearing loss under state law.

Discrimination charges on the basis of disability accounted for 21.4 percent of all those filed with the EEOC in 2007, down from 22.4 percent in 1997, according to agency charge statistics. The EEOC recovered $54.4 million in monetary benefits, which exclude litigation fees, for disability-related discrimination cases that year, up from $41.3 million in 1997. Charges based on hearing impairments comprised 4 percent of total disability-related charges in 2007. You can get more facts and statistics on disability-related EEOC charges here.

In the federal work force, employees with targeted (or severe) disabilities account for a mere 0.97 percent of the total permanent work force. That number has declined every year since 1993. "Overall, the federal government is losing more people with targeted disabilities than it is hiring each year," reports the EEOC.

In 2006, deaf people made up 18.3 percent of all federal employees with targeted disabilities, but their representation has declined every year since 1997 for a total loss of 7.22 percent. Representation of deaf employees in federal government among those with targeted disabilities is second only to employees suffering from mental illness, who make up 24 percent of all federally employed individuals with targeted disabilities. Still, the number of those with mental illness has gone up over the last decade.

Download the EEOC's report to improve opportunities for individuals with targeted disabilities in the federal work force for key statistics and recommendations.

What to Do if You Think You're a Victim

A Q&A session at the conclusion of the conference became emotional when deaf and hard-of-hearing people painfully expressed their experiences facing rejection when trying to get jobs, enjoy public accommodations or contribute to society.

State and federal legal experts had advice for those who feel they are victims of discrimination:

Keep notes. Document times, dates and the names of individuals who you feel discriminated against you.
Reach out. After you contact the organization you feel is not accommodating your disability or discriminating against you in some way to make them aware of the situation, contact your local civil-rights division or EEOC office. You can find out more about how to file a complaint at
Educate. Engage the assistance of hearing-loss advocacy organizations to help educate your employer because sometimes they don't intend to exclude certain groups; they just don't think about it.
Advocate. Involvement in state and national associations for deaf people and collaborating with individuals, employers and government representatives is key for large-scale change.Make the business case. At the end of the day, it's all about numbers. Making a compelling business case to your employer, for example, about how providing access to certain equipment will help you be more productive in your job and to the bottom line is likely to gain buy-in.

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