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Breaking News: Fighting Workplace Discrimination against the Hearing Impaired

Shaw, Gina

doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000423562.14554.48


Efforts to thwart discrimination against hearing-impaired and deaf individuals in the workplace were successful this fall when two Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuits yielded wins for their plaintiffs. The EEOC won a rare summary judgment Sept. 21 against a Phoenix company that refused to accommodate and hire a hearing-impaired applicant. The company, Creative Networks, LLC, provides services to the disabled.

The case arose when Rochelle Duran, who has had hearing loss since birth and was diagnosed with severe bilateral hearing impairment at age 12, applied for a position. The job required a series of orientation and training sessions totaling more than 24 hours for which Ms. Duran requested an interpreter. Creative Networks mandated that she find her own, and insisted that they would pay no more than $200 for interpreting services, according to the lawsuit.

“Creative Networks denied Duran an employment opportunity, and the denial was based on her need for reasonable accommodations. Indeed, Defendant's failure to offer Duran reasonable accommodations foreclosed her opportunity for employment by preventing her from proceeding further in the application process,” Judge David Alan Ezra of the US District Court in Arizona wrote in his judgment. (See FastLinks.) Next, the case goes to trial to determine damages and injunctive relief.

The verdict came less than two weeks after another company, Wisconsin-based gift and household product manufacturer Miles Kimball, agreed to pay $95,000 and supply other relief to settle an EEOC lawsuit brought on behalf of deaf employee Laura Nejedlo, who had worked for the company for 13 years. Ms. Nejedlo was assigned to use a new computer software program in 2007, but the company refused to provide a sign language interpreter for training, according to the lawsuit. Ms. Nejedlo was then fired. Miles Kimball, in addition to compensating Ms. Nejedlo $95,000, will be required to “train its managers and supervisors regarding an employer's obligations and the rights of employees under the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act],” said an EEOC release. (See FastLinks.)

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There are many more cases where those came from. The EEOC filed a lawsuit in the spring of 2012 against a Wendy's franchise in Texas that refused to hire a hearing-impaired man with more than two years’ experience at another fast food franchise; there, the general manager baldly declared, “There is really no place for someone we cannot communicate with.”

Workers with hearing impairments and their employers struggle every day to find solutions so that hearing impairment does not interfere with performance. Mary Clark, a professional hearing loss coach, said most employers do not want to discriminate, but it can be subtle in these cases. “There are so many examples of how people with hearing loss do not know what to ask for, and their bosses are unable to come up with solutions to help someone when the hearing loss starts to interfere with performance,” she said. “What it amounts to is individuals with hearing loss are no longer included in the off-the-cuff, spontaneous communications that happen in an office, where people are not necessarily in visual contact, like carrying on conversations over cubicle walls or around a corner.” The person with hearing loss can be marginalized simply because he has not been participating in the group in the same way others have.

This is where audiologists have a tremendous opportunity to help their patients, Ms. Clark said. “Aural rehabilitation is so key to success with hearing loss, and the audiologist has a real opportunity to help their patients feel confident and successful by training them in communications strategies.”

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An increasing number of gadgets and devices can be used to help the hearing-impaired communicate in a specific work environment, such as on the phone or in an office, laboratory, warehouse, or retail store. Ms. Clark pointed to T-link hearing aid-compatible phone headsets and personal assistive listening devices that act as acoustic amplifiers and induction receivers as examples. “Some of them connect with the T-coil in hearing aids, so you can listen to what's coming through the microphone as if you're hearing it right in your ear,” she said. “You can just clip them on your shirt, and no one even realizes that's what it is. There are very simple, inexpensive models of these, up to very high-end versions.”

Ms. Clark stressed that audiologists should talk with their patients about the environment in which they work and the unique auditory features of that workplace. “Let's say, for example, you have a patient who works in a warehouse. That's a very specific space: forklifts backing up and beeping, the cement floor noise, the echoes of a cavernous space,” she said. “Hearing aids often have room for as many as five different programs, so you could set up a work setting on that person's hearing aid that is designed to optimize speech and minimize background noise in order to give them a better chance of hearing things they want and need to hear.”

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Employers, especially small businesses, are often concerned about the bottom line of accommodations in today's difficult economy. “We have 250 to 300 deaf and hard of hearing students graduating each year and looking for jobs in both the private and public sector,” said Gerard Buckley, the president of Rochester Institute of Technology's National Technical Institute for the Deaf. “What we try to do is work with them to show all the technologies that are low-cost and try to overcome some of that fear. They may assume that they'll have to hire a full-time interpreter or captionist, but that may be only necessary every few weeks for a big staff meeting. Day-to-day communication can be handled through assistive listening for hard-of-hearing people or text-based visual assistance for the deaf.”

Ms. Clark said in many cases solutions are even more low-tech than that. “Once I was in an office where the furniture was built in, and I couldn't turn anything around. So when someone would come to my doorway and start talking, I couldn't hear them. I went to an auto supply store and bought a rearview mirror to put on the wall above my computer. That solved that problem!”

Many cases of inadvertent workplace discrimination against those with hearing loss can be prevented or remedied by involving a proactive audiologist, Ms. Clark suggested. “If a person with hearing loss doesn't know what to ask for, and the employer doesn't know what to give them, performance is going to suffer.”

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Blast from the Past!

Workplace discrimination is certainly not a new thing. The April 1948 issue of The National Hearing Aid Journal reported on a 63-year-old veteran, Henry Merkle, who went back to work as a conductor on the New Jersey and New York Railroad after being out of work for months.

The reason? The company's operating department prohibited employees from wearing hearing aids. Petitions asking for Mr. Merkle's reinstatement were received by the company from 360 commuters. Mr. Merkle, after an examination, was eventually reinstated.

Coinciding with this event, State Labor Commissioner at the time, Harry C. Harper, received a letter from the head of the American Hearing Aid Association, Irving Schachtel, protesting rules against employing the hearing impaired.

© 2012 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.