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Deaf Employees and Workplace Discrimination

Employment discrimination is all too common for people with hearing loss.

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By Lisa A. Goldstein

Quinn Matthews* learned very quickly that any interviews where she disclosed her hearing loss – even in a positive manner – meant she would not get the job. When she did not disclose, she was offered the job. Ironically, her deafness is obvious from her speech and cochlear implant.

The biggest barrier to getting jobs now is the interview, she said. Most jobs want a pre-screening interview by phone. If she explains and requests a different format, the job is often suddenly “filled,” though it continues to be posted online. In one instance, Matthews offered alternative screening communication options. The interviewer said that because others were screened by phone, she had to be fair. If Matthews couldn’t be interviewed by phone, then she would not get an interview. “The person hired was FAR less experienced and qualified than I was,” Matthews said.

All Too Common

Unfortunately, employment discrimination is all too common for people with hearing loss. According to MyDisabilityJobs, people who are deaf or hard of hearing are actively looking for work to a greater extent than people who can hear. A blog on Raliance states, “Often those in the deaf/HoH community have to put more work into their educational background to get the same recognition as their hearing counterparts, with some prospective employees unable to get an interview with thousands of employers despite holding advanced degrees.”

COVID Discrimination

Matthews has a long list of discriminatory examples in her job search or even on the job. One of the most egregious occurred during COVID. Because the job was in person, Matthews realized that masking was going to make lipreading impossible and thus make it difficult for her to do her job. She immediately approached HR to request a dialogue about possible accommodations but was told they were too busy to meet. They never provided any suggestions or offered to work with Matthews despite her over a decade of employment and zero performance issues. They sent a termination letter. The letter was blatantly false, stating that Matthews wouldn’t wear a mask when masks were needed. This wasn’t the issue at all, as Matthews would wear a mask; she was simply seeking accommodations for others wearing masks.

“Losing that job meant putting my certification and license at risk,” Matthews said. “The action by this company has jeopardized my future in all my other jobs and has the potential to devastate me financially.”

COVID affected Simone Fillon* too. Her colleagues and bosses were reluctant to wear clear masks. She tried but only encountered resistance. One time, she tried a speech-to-text app, but it failed miserably in capturing the speaker. Another time, she “listened real hard and used all my communication-repair strategies.” Once, a colleague saw her struggling and relayed what the speaker was saying. For a staff retreat, she requested microphones at the table. They were not provided, no one stepped in, and she didn’t feel safe advocating.

An example is when Fillon requested CART for a major event her office organized. Her boss complained about aesthetics, saying it would be ugly. Fillon tried to advocate for it again at a staff meeting but was shot down. Ultimately, CART was provided, but only on side screens, not the main one. “I was treated as if I was asking for the moon and the stars,” Fillon recalled. “I was told it would be too expensive to have an interpreter or CART at every program. I’m always on my own to advocate. There’s no allyship.”

Making Headlines

Sometimes the experience results in a lawsuit that makes headlines. In 2003, for example, UPS agreed to pay $10 million and improve working conditions for employees who were deaf to settle the nation’s first class-action employment discrimination lawsuit on behalf of workers with hearing loss, the Los Angeles Times reported. While UPS did not admit to any wrongdoing and refused to settle one of the demands, it was considered a win. Well-known companies like FedEx Ground, Subway, and Dollar Tree Distribution have also been sued for violating the ADA on behalf of applicants with hearing loss. Large entities like hospitals have also been called to task.

Important to Know

Under the ADA, an employer may not ask questions about an applicant’s medical condition. It is allowed, however, to ask questions pertaining to the applicant’s ability to perform essential duties. Applicants are not required to disclose their disability prior to accepting a job offer. A nuance is if an applicant has an obvious “impairment” or has voluntarily disclosed the existence of one, and the “employer reasonably believes that the applicant will require an accommodation to complete the application process or to perform the job because of the condition, the employer may ask whether the applicant will need an accommodation and what type,” the EEOC advises.

After the job offer is made, the employer can ask questions about the applicant’s health/disability. When it comes to providing accommodations, an employer does not have to do so if it would be an “undue hardship.”

Filing a Complaint

If a higher-up or HR is part of the discrimination or hasn’t been much help in resolving the issue, an option is to file a complaint. The National Association of the Deaf has a helpful page on how to do so. The EEOC – which is responsible for investigating such charges – has offices throughout the country. In some states, NAD says, you must file a charge within 180 days of the incident. EEOC offices are listed online. Be forewarned that there is a huge backlog and not enough staffing; it took them two years to look at Matthews’ case.

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is another valuable resource, with an Ask JAN feature.

A Never-Ending Fight

Because of her experiences being discriminated against due to her deafness, Matthews is more compassionate. But she’s also angry. “I am angry that I can’t just have the same expectations and respect as everyone else,” she said. “I am angry that I get passed over repeatedly for jobs for which I am completely overqualified. This has spurred my passion for DEI initiatives and promoting inclusion and acceptance of people of all different backgrounds. I am extremely justice oriented and will fight for what’s right. Even though it’s exhausting, I will fight so that maybe the next person will have it a little bit easier.”

*Name protected for privacy

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