People smiling while in the workplace

Know Your Rights: Accessibility and the Workplace

Protections Afforded by the ADA

In 1990 Congress signed The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the law which remains the fundamental protection guaranteeing the civil rights of everyone with a disability of any kind.

The ADA is divided into five sections, called titles, each of which covers the broad protections afforded within a specific category.

Title I: Employment

Title II: Public Services

Title III: Public Accommodations

Title IV: Telecommunications

Title V: Miscellaneous


The sum of all these rights are commonly summarized as three main points:

1—Employers with more than 15 employees cannot discriminate due to a disability and must provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities.

2—Public government entities cannot discriminate due to a disability and must provide assistive systems such as government buildings including hearing loops and wheelchair ramps.

3—Privately owned “places of public accommodation” cannot discriminate due to a disability and must improve accessibility for the disabled.

Though other laws specify further rights, the ADA is the root of all rights guaranteed to those who live with hearing loss. And workplace issues are the very first topics that the ADA protects.


Hearing Loss and Employment discrimination 

If you are deaf or heard of hearing your rights within the workplace begin before you have even been hired. Along with The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the ADA protects the rights of job applicants. When applying for a job at a company that has at least 15 employees, you are under no obligation to disclose your hearing disability and the employer is restricted from asking leading questions to ascertain if you have a disability of any kind.

It is within their rights to ask about your ability to perform specific tasks essential to the job they are looking to fill. They may ask, for example, about your communication skills within a briskly-moving, noisy setting. And if your difficulty hearing is apparent, or if you choose to disclose it, a prospective employer may ask if you might require accommodations to do this job and what these accommodations would be.

If these accommodations are “reasonable,” not too difficult or cost prohibitive to do, the employer is legally obligated to see them through. This, of course, begs the question of what are considered “reasonable” accommodations. Common examples of such accommodations include sign language interpreters at meetings, captioned telephones, and strobe light alarm systems within the workspace.

Know that these are all legally protected rights, so you should feel no uncertainty telling your boss exactly what adjustments would be beneficial to you. Just be prepared with documentation from your doctor or hearing health specialist to provide specifics about your condition.


Evolving Technology 

The ever-accelerating pace of technological evolution has always impacted the workplace, fundamentally transforming over and over the relationships between material and labor and management. And while we should all be grateful that so many laws protect the rights of those with disabling hearing loss, these laws become complicated by the ongoing need to reinterpret them as technology evolves.

The ADA became law at the very beginning of the internet, well-before its ubiquity in all our lives. Therefore it does not specifically address the accessibility of the internet for those with hearing loss. Different judges have ruled differently on if “places of public accommodation” includes websites and apps and though the Department of Justice says that it does, they have not laid out any regulations to enforce this.

Of course the Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences on where and how we all work has made these unresolved issues more prevalent than ever before. As more and more people work from home, and depend on the internet more and more to do so, the definition of what exactly constitutes discriminatory practices continues to evolve. The online video chat service Zoom, for example, which so many people have come to depend on since the pandemic, used to charge extra for closed captioning. After a couple people with hearing loss sued the company for doing so, closed captioning is now free for everyone on the platform.


Stand Up for Yourself

Your employer knows the expectations of the law as well as you do. So do not hesitate to speak up.

And if you think your rights as a disabled person at the workplace have been violated, file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). You have 180 days from the date of the incident to do so. If the EEOC agrees with you, you will receive a “right to sue” letter from them, allowing you to file a federal lawsuit.