A Complete Employer's Guide to Legal Compliance In Supporting Employees that are Deaf or Hard of Hearing
As an employer, it is important to understand and navigate the various laws and regulations that pertain to accommodating employees who are Deaf and/or hard of hearing in the workplace. This guide will provide a detailed playbook and explanation of the key laws and regulations that employers need to be aware of, in order to meet the necessary requirements of accommodation.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in the workplace. Although DHH (Deaf and hard of hearing) do not consider themselves disabled, they are protected under this Act. The ADA requires that employers make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities, so they can perform the essential functions of their jobs. What’s considered “reasonable accommodations” will be explained shortly, but let’s talk about the rehabilitation Act of 1973 quickly first.
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 508
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that all electronic and information technology used by federal agencies be accessible to individuals with disabilities. Although many in the Deaf and hard of hearing communities do not consider themselves disabled, Deaf and hard of hearing individuals are protected under the Rehabilitation Act.
Understanding Reasonable Accommodations
Reasonable accommodations are modifications or adjustments to a job or work environment that enable an individual with a different abilities to perform the essential functions of the job. Let’s take a look at some examples of accommodations that would likely be required by law vs. not, in order to fully paint the picture.
Accommodations likely to be required by law:
Sign Language Interpreters
Sign language interpreters can be provided as a reasonable accommodation for employees who are Deaf and/or hard of hearing in many workplace scenarios. Interpreters can facilitate communication between Deaf individuals and their coworkers, supervisors, interviewees, interviewers, guests, speakers, and customers. Employers should work with the employee to determine the frequency and duration of the interpreter services needed.
Real-time captioning can be provided as a reasonable accommodation for employees who are Deaf and/or hard of hearing. This technology can provide a written transcript of spoken words in real-time, allowing the employee to communicate and participate in meetings, presentations, and other important events.
Visual Fire Alarms
Visual fire alarms can be installed as a reasonable accommodation for employees who are Deaf and/or hard of hearing. Visual fire alarms use flashing lights or vibrations to alert the employee of a fire emergency, allowing them to evacuate the building safely.
Accommodations not likely to be required by law:
Requests that would impose an undue hardship on the employer:
For example, a request for a full-time, on-site sign language interpreter at a small business with limited resources may be considered an undue hardship. Here, a full time interpreter may be excessive if the individual only has a few meetings a week, but part-time interpreting may be required.
Requests that fundamentally alter the nature of the job or business:
For example, a request for a job modification that would require the employer to install a TTY system throughout the entire building when the employee only needs it in their own workspace may be considered a fundamental alteration.
Requests that would pose a direct threat to the health or safety of the employee or others:
For example, a request for an on-site interpreter in a hazardous work environment may pose a direct threat to the health and safety of others. Here, virtual interpreting could be a more viable option.
Requests that are not necessary to perform the essential functions of the job:
For example, a request for an employee to use a sign language interpreter in non-work related meetings, may not be necessary to perform the essential functions of the job.
Accommodations not likely to be required by law, but that are still a good idea:
Providing assistive technology, such as captioned telephones or video phones
Providing flexible scheduling to allow for interpreter services or other accommodations
Providing additional training for coworkers and supervisors on how to effectively communicate with employees using an interpreter or captioner/transcriber
Providing written materials in advance of meetings or presentations to allow the interpreter(s) to review and prepare in advance
It is important to note that while some requests may not be reasonable or required by law, they should still be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the specific facts and circumstances of each situation. Employers are encouraged to engage in the interactive process with employees who are Deaf and/or hard of hearing, to determine what accommodations would be considered reasonable and effective in enabling them to perform the essential functions of their jobs and be productive members of your team. Afterall that’s everyone’s goal at the end of the day right?
The Interactive Process
Generally speaking, employers have a legal obligation to provide reasonable accommodations to employees who are Deaf and/or hard of hearing, as long as doing so would not cause an undue hardship. Beyond the legal obligation, employers also want to maximize the effectiveness of their teams. Open communication about employee needs are vital to this success.
There is no set formula for determining what constitutes an undue hardship under the ADA, but the following factors are often considered:
The cost of the accommodation
The size of the business, including the number of employees and the type of operation
The type of the accommodation and its relationship to the essential functions of the job
The impact of the accommodation on the employer's operations
It is important for employers to engage in an interactive process with employees who are Deaf and/or hard of hearing, to determine what accommodations will effectively enable them to perform the essential functions of their jobs. The interactive process involves communication between the employer and the employee, to determine what accommodations are effective, and to assess any potential difficulties or challenges that may arise.
Accommodating employees who are Deaf and/or hard of hearing in the workplace requires a comprehensive understanding of the various laws and regulations that pertain to accessibility, as well as an understanding of reasonable accommodations and the interactive process. By following these guidelines, employers can ensure that they are meeting their legal obligations, avoiding any lawsuits, and providing a level playing field for all employees, including those who are Deaf and/or hard of hearing.