The Americans with Disabilities Act
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed into law in 1990, legally protects the rights of the hearing impaired. It comprehensively protects the civil rights of people with disabilities in a vast range of public life including the workplace, local and federal governmental services, transportation, public accommodations and telecommunications.
These protections fall into three main categories.
First, in the workplace, anyone that employees more than 15 workers must not discriminate due to disability and must arrange for reasonable accommodations for any employees with disabilities.
Secondly, all governmental agencies must not discriminate due to disability must provide accessibility and assistance to everyone with disabilities. Examples of this in practice would be the presence in every government building of wheelchair ramps and assistive hearing loops.
And thirdly, all privately owned “places of public accommodation” must not discriminate due to disability and must improve accessibility for everyone with disabilities.
These protections apply to the deaf and hard of hearing even when hearing aids or cochlear implants diminish the impact of the disability. As the technology continues to constantly evolve and especially in the last couple years as the Covid-19 pandemic has altered so many aspects of our lives, the standards of compliance can be a little tricky to nail down specifically. But it remains law that public spaces are supposed to keep pace with technological advancements.
The Public Spaces at Which You Can Expect Compliance
To remain in compliance with the ADA, courtrooms, hospitals, and schools must make sign language interpreters available whenever necessary.
All movie theaters and other venues with fixed seating for more than 50 people, which includes lecture halls for example, must supply hearing assistance services.
Museums must have assistive listening systems according to the law. Most museums go above and beyond this legal requirement and also provide captions and sign language.
Airports are obligated by the ADA to appropriately accommodate for all disabilities, including obviously the deaf and hard of hearing.
The Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA) assures that all airport and airline communications, including foreign airlines that enter the U.S., all be captioned to accommodate the deaf and hard of hearing.
Other common public spaces that must comply with the mandates of the ADA include stadiums, nursing homes, hotels, convention centers, and conference rooms.
In 1999 The Early Hearing Detection and Intervention program (EHDI) was adopted federally. It requires that all newborns be screened for congenital hearing disabilities and if any problems are detected, a followup visit must happen within months. Every infant found to have hearing trouble will be registered immediately in a state program that intervenes to mollify all problems as quickly as possible. The Individuals with Disabilities Act (ACT) and The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 further guarantee the rights of children with disabilities and specifically hearing loss. Together these guarantee that the state must provide appropriate free services until the age of three for every child who qualifies.
After that, schools must guarantee that all students who need hearing aids have them and they are operational. Schools must also guarantee any and all necessary assistive technology and teachers that are trained to operate and manage them. Furthermore all non-academic and extracurricular activities must perform all required provisions to include any kids with disabilities. And all of these rights allowed to disabled kids apply until the age of 21.
The ADA became law before the internet, so the issues about its applications to the internet continue to evolve. The U.S. Department of Justice has said that the same standards that guarantee inclusion in public spaces should apply to the internet, but it has not formalized this concept with specific regulations to guarantee that it actually happens.
Public pressure, class-action and individual lawsuits have made a difference in provoking companies to extend their accessibility online. Zoom, Dominoes, and Target have all modified their websites after pressure to do so.
Living with a disability can be tough. Knowing your specific individual rights is the first step to recognizing when a situation violates. If you recognize such a violation, speak up to the responsible party. And if that fails to provoke action, there is a simple form on the ADA website to register violations.