Know Your Rights: Accessibility and the Workplace

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The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) changed the entire landscape of life for people with disabilities. Signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, it was the result of many decades of tireless work by advocates for people with disabilities.

Even today, many of the rights we take for granted can be traced back to the awesome power of this sweeping civil rights legislation. And while many of the prohibited discriminations are widely known, it’s imperative that people with hearing loss recognize their rights within the workplace, to continue to advocate for themselves and for each other.


About the ADA

The ADA set guidelines in place at the federal level, which means that these are laws that must be followed throughout the entire United States and recognized territories. In short, the ADA means that discrimination based on disabilities is forbidden in employment, state and local government initiatives, public spaces, private sector establishments, transportation, and telecommunications.


While the bill signed into law was based extensively on the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, its origins reach farther back as a disability rights movement. That said, the many activists that made the ADA a reality relied heavily upon strategies and tactics used in the Civil Rights Movement.

Prior to its passing and for most of the recent past, people with disabilities were treated to an ‘out of sight/out of mind’ mentality, which forced them into designated spaces outside of public life. By bringing the humanity of and obstacles faced by people with disabilities into the light, the result of the ADA is to ensure the equitable treatment of people with conditions like hearing loss, wheelchair use, blindness and other types of recognized disabilities.


The ADA in the workplace

If you had to name a factor in providing an opportunity for independence, employment would rank pretty high up there in our society. When we have economic sovereignty, we are able to make decisions for ourselves without relying on the judgment and kindness of other people. For this reason, the provisions outlined in the ADA that apply to employers are of the utmost importance.

Even if your hearing loss is supported by hearing aids or a cochlear implant, the protections of the ADA are still applicable. Reasonable accommodations must be provided by your employer, and you cannot be discriminated against in either hiring or firing based upon your hearing loss condition.


Workplace Architecture

The ADA applies to all employers with more than 15 employees. But what is particularly interesting, and perhaps not as well known, is that when building or remodeling facilities, all businesses, even those that don’t cater to the general public, are required to adhere to accessibility design guidelines. That means that your employer must already be setting the architecture in place to ensure an equitable workplace environment for people of all abilities, even if they are not open to the public.


The ADA in the modern workplace 

How does the ADA interact with a modern day worker’s daily life? The experience of disabled employees may be affected by new workplace design trends and technological advancements.

Today, we see many employers removing the cubicle farms of the last few decades in favor of an open floor plan. The idea is that opening up the workspace will further flow and communication. But for people with hearing loss, an open floor plan can wreak havoc on both their listening ability and concentration. If this is occurring in your workplace, you can use the ADA to advocate for a more accessible desk environment. Federal law requires that your employer works with you to provide accommodations that are reasonable in order to address any problems the layout of your office has on your performance.


On the other hand, we also see many workplaces shifting to remote work and with that, an uptick in Zoom meetings, or other video conferencing platforms. For many people with hearing loss, this is a vastly superior environment for meetings. We are more likely to be able to look directly at the person talking (depending on camera angles), so that we can see their mouth movements and facial expressions. Plus, we can easily control the volume, setting it to our preferred level.

However, as a person with hearing loss, it would be reasonable to ask that all video meetings also had closed captioning enabled. While it might not be a default setting in your company’s process, the ADA’s provisions make it completely acceptable to ask that closed captioning be standard for all video meetings.