Most people who are deaf or have a significant hearing impairment are protected from workplace discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If you're covered by the ADA, an employer may not discriminate against you based on your hearing impairment.
The ADA applies to:
Under the ADA, you're also entitled to reasonable accommodations—changes to your job tasks or workplace that will allow you to do your job—as long as they don't create an undue hardship for your employer.
The ADA protects deaf and hearing-impaired employees and job applicants from disability discrimination. That means an employer may not take action against you (or refuse to hire you in the first place) because you have a disability, you have a history of disability, or the employer thinks—even incorrectly—that you have a disability.
The ADA defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Because hearing qualifies as a major life activity, you're most likely covered by the ADA if you're deaf or have significant hearing loss.
To be protected by the ADA, you must be qualified for the job and able to perform its essential functions, with or without a reasonable accommodation. You're qualified for a job if you have the necessary skills, training, and certification, such as a required license, an appropriate degree, or past work experience in the field.
The essential functions of the job are the fundamental job duties but don't include extra or occasional duties. For example, the essential functions of an administrative assistant's position might include scheduling appointments, preparing documents, and sending correspondence.
Sometimes the administrative assistants in an office must occasionally fill in for the receptionist (like during the lunch hour). In that case, front desk duties like answering phones and directing visitors wouldn't be part of the administrative assistant's essential job functions. That's because these tasks are only performed occasionally.
A reasonable accommodation is a change to the job duties or workplace that allows an employee to do a job despite a disability. Accommodations for employees with hearing loss might include providing TTY telephone equipment or a telephone headset, special communication devices, and software designed for the hearing impaired. It could also include equipment with visual or sensory alerts, like a telephone that vibrates or lights up when ringing or an alert system with a flashing light as well as a siren.
(For more information on reasonable accommodations for deafness and hearing loss, check out this factsheet from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).)
An employer isn't required to provide a reasonable accommodation if doing so would cause undue hardship for the employer: significant difficulty or expense. Whether an accommodation would cause undue hardship depends on:
An accommodation often poses an undue hardship because of its expense. But an accommodation might also be an undue hardship because it would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the business.
For example, a library clerk with some hearing loss might request that a loud bell (with vibration) and a speaker be added to the telephone, making it easier to hear and answer calls. Although the accommodation is probably inexpensive, it would also disturb patrons and destroy the quiet atmosphere of the library, which could make it an undue hardship.
When you have a disability like deafness or hearing impairment, your employer is legally obligated to work with you to come up with reasonable accommodations, if possible. But not all employers willingly do what's required. You might consider getting legal help if:
If you believe you've been discriminated against or harassed because of your disability, be sure to write down each incident. Record the following:
If you decide to file a legal claim against your employer, this documentation could be key to proving your case.
If you feel you're being discriminated against because of your deafness or hearing impairment, follow your company's procedure for making an internal complaint of discrimination or harassment. If there's no set procedure, go to the human resources department and ask to make a formal complaint.
Sometimes, mistreatment happens because someone doesn't understand the law or isn't sensitive to the needs of employees with disabilities. If you're facing this type of situation, complaining to the HR department might solve the problem.
If your internal complaints don't resolve the problem, or if you don't have access to an internal complaint process, you can file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC or a similar agency in your state.
At this point, you should consider speaking to an attorney. A lawyer can help you evaluate the facts and decide whether you have a good claim. A lawyer can also help you file an EEOC charge, negotiate with your employer, and, if necessary, file a lawsuit for disability discrimination.
(Find out what it takes to prove a disability discrimination case under the ADA.)
Need a lawyer? Start here.