Hearing Loss in the Workplace
This workshop was presented by Mary M. Clark, Teresa Blankmeyer, and Patricia Miskemin.
Mary began by noting that there are 15 million people with hearing loss in the workplace today, and that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide them with reasonable accommodations. The first step in getting an accommodation is to admit to a hearing loss and ask for what is needed. This is often difficult, partly because the general public has many misconceptions regarding hearing loss. These include:
– If you have a hearing loss, then you must know sign language.
– If you wear hearing aids, that “fixes” your hearing.
– If you wear hearing aids, you can use a phone.
So, you may have to overcome these misconceptions in order to make someone understand that you really NEED the accommodation you’re requesting. During this process, take special care not to become aggressive, apologetic, self-demeaning, angry, impolite, defensive, or manipulative. It’s probably a good idea to rehearse what you need to say so it comes out sounding just like you want it to.
Also be aware that your hearing loss can cause people to have negative perceptions of you which are totally unfounded. This generally happens when you don’t respond (because you didn’t hear them) or respond inappropriately (because you misheard them). These perceptions include:
– You are unfriendly, rude, or indifferent
– You have poor social skills
– You are incompetent
– You are not very bright
– You don’t pay attention
– You are weird or have personal or emotional problems.
Getting appropriate accommodations is necessary to help dispel these unfounded perceptions.
The workplace presents several barriers to people with hearing loss, including telephones, office layouts, and bosses who “don’t get it”. There may be steps you can take to overcome these barriers.
The telephone may be the most common issue for people with hearing loss, and successfully dealing with this issue can greatly improve the quality of your work life. The first thing to address is the physical equipment and environment. You will certainly need a quiet place to make phone calls, and a volume control phone is very helpful. Also, consider how much phone time is required. Perhaps you can negotiate a reduction in phone time in exchange for taking on additional responsibilities. And finally, if you are required to have a wireless phone, perhaps you could use a text pager instead.
Pat presented the next portion of this workshop, and she began with a discussion of meetings. She noted that meetings of different sizes can present different problems, and that what works in one meeting may not work in another. For example, many people with hearing loss are able to get by without accommodation in a small meeting, but may require some extra effort in a larger meeting. She made the following points:
– Visual contact is a must. If you can’t see their faces, you won’t understand them. So round tables are better than long rectangular tables. Rows of chairs almost certainly will be a probem.
– You must let people know what you need, and you may have to tell them more than once. Try not to become upset when you tell someone something for the tenth time.
– Don’t be embarrassed to use assistive listening devices (ALDs).
– Practice asking for what you need.
– Make arrangements ahead of time for someone to take notes that you can share.
– Talk to the person running the meeting to let them know what to expect. They’re a lot more likely to cooperate with you if you tell them in advance what you need.
– Have clearly defined rules and be sure that everyone abides by them. One person talking at a time is a must.
– Help others to feel comfortable about your hearing loss. Humor is a great way to do this. Things will go a lot more smoothly if everyone is comfortable in the situation.
Other problems can arise at work because of the environment. A common example is to be working at your computer with your back to the door. When someone comes in, you don’t know they’re there. One solution is to have a “rear view mirror” installed on your monitor, so you can see people enter. I chose to install a wireless doorbell that flashed a lamp, then I sent an email to my coworkers telling them about it. Suddenly everyone showed up to try it out!
Another common problem is trying to conduct conversations in a noisy environment, or over the telephone. Today’s offices are full of all kinds of noise, and even devices that interfere with telecoils. I’ve found email to be a huge help. I really encourage people to email me when that works. I also try to get the phone accessories that help me the most, and I tell people that I have a hearing loss and how they can help.
Teresa began her portion of the presentation by announcing that she’s known as the Gadget Queen, and stressing the importance of ALDs. It may be embarrassing to walk into a meeting and announce that you need to use your ALD, but what are the options? Bluffing doesn’t work in that environment.
I have a volume control on my phone, but I also need to know when the phone is ringing. It’s not appropriate to have a very loud ring in an office environment, so I use a visual alert.
And for large meetings, I’ve found a conference mike to be very helpful.
What do you do about bosses who just don’t “get it”? You’ve told them many times about your hearing loss and what it means, but they still have unrealistic expectations. I work in academia, and it’s sort of expected that the whole department will go out for drinks or dinner on occasion. I had explained to a former boss that I’m exhausted from working so hard to communicate all day, and I just can’t go out and keep working that hard after work, but he thought I was anti-social. Or there may be misunderstandings about what you’re expected to accomplish. Perhaps he gives you tasks that are not appropriate for a person with a hearing loss. Or maybe he thinks that your hearing aids fix your hearing just like his glasses fix his vision. What can you do in these situations?
Your best strategy is to educate, advocate, and then re-educate. And accept the fact that you will have to do this over and over. Tell your boss what you need to do your job; be very specific. Tell him what is comfortable for you and what isn’t. Be sure he understands that a lot of phone work just isn’t appropriate for a person with hearing loss. When you discuss job expectations, be sure to document the discussion so there is no misunderstanding later. One analogy I’ve used to explain hearing aids is to liken your hearing with them to listening to a detuned radio station. You don’t hear anywhere near perfectly, and turning them up doesn’t help.
There are many assistive devices and technologies that can be useful in the workplace. Without going into detail, some of the things that may be appropriate for you include various types of telephone equipment, FM and infrared systems, conference mikes, instant messaging, visual alerts, voice recognition systems, interpreters, and the relay service.
The next topic that Teresa explored was challenges in the work environment. The first topic was motion sensors, which are becoming increasingly common as part of energy conservation efforts. Teresa asked Mary to present this topic, because she has recent experience with this topic.
Mary noted that utilities are providing rebates to companies that install motion sensors to control lighting, and that many companies are doing so. These devices sense motion or lack of motion in a room and turn the lights on or off, as appropriate. There are two types of devices, one uses infrared light and the other uses ultrasound. The infrared systems don’t interfere with hearing aid functions, but the ultrasound systems do. Because they are interpreted by some hearing aids as very loud sounds, the ultrasound bursts reduce the hearing aid gain to the point of shutting it off. Since these bursts occur repeatedly, they are an ongoing annoyance to people using hearing aids. The message, of course, is to have your company install the infrared systems, rather than the ultrasound systems.
Teresa then addressed the topic of hallway conversations and general office chatting. How do you, as a person with hearing loss, know if important things are being discussed? It doesn’t make sense to attempt to join in every conversation to determine what it’s about, but you also want to be sure to get the important information, which is all-to-often disseminated in this informal manner. Teresa suggested that you recruit an ally who will pass along the important gossip. Of course, you need to be sure the two of you are in agreement about what’s “important”.
Another important issue in the workplace is emergency preparedness. Chances are good that your office has some formal plans for emergency evacuation. Do those plans include ensuring that you are notified of the emergency so you can get out of the building? Teresa recommends having at least two people assigned to notify you in case of an emergency. She also recommends that you have a pager that notifies you of an emergency. [Editor: This may be a solution that only works in specialized situations. I’m not aware of any solution that’s generally in place that would send a text message in response to an emergency in a particular location.]
C: I used to get hearing aid interference from my computer monitor. Replacing the old monitor with one of the new flat panel displays solved that problem.
C: If background noise is a problem, especially in a cubicle environment, it may be appropriate for you to have a private office or higher cubicle walls.
C: If you plan to approach your company about ADA requirements, you need to be aware that companies with less that 15 employees are exempt from the ADA.
C: I used to use a speakerphone, and I turned the volume up pretty high. This was disturbing to people in my area, so I had to learn to close my door when I used the speakerphone. Remember that accommodations go both ways.
Q: If you request a reasonable accommodation and your boss refuses to provide it, what do you do?
A: You may need to remind your boss that the ADA requires him to provide reasonable accommodations. Or you may want to contact Human Resources and ask them to discuss the situation with your boss. He may need some ADA training. In other cases (including organizations that aren’t covered by the ADA), Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) may provide you with the assistance you need.
C: I think it’s important to look at the situation from the employer’s perspective. What’s in it for them? Emphasize how much you enjoy your job and how much you want to do a good job, and point out that this accommodation will assist you in doing your job better. Also be sure to talk to your boss first, before you go anywhere else.
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