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Legal Rights of People with Hearing Loss

Deaf and hard-of-hearing people shouldn’t be made to feel like they’re a difficulty others have to deal with, but sometimes, negative attitudes bleed into interactions in the workplace, in public settings, and even within local governments. What are deaf people’s rights, and how can one effectively self-advocate in some of these difficult situations? What’s the history of deaf rights, and how can we build a more accessible future?

The Fight for Deaf Rights

In 1988, a small group of students at Gallaudet University, a school for primarily deaf and hard-of-hearing students, started a protest when the board announced that the school’s seventh president would be a hearing one. They shut down the campus because the basic ideals they had been taught were now inconsistent with reality: At Gallaudet, deaf students were taught to believe that they could do whatever they wanted in life except, it seemed, be president of Gallaudet. In what some refer to as a deaf rights movement, the students demanded “DPN” (or “Deaf President Now”). This long protest brought media attention to issues most Americans weren’t aware of and has had a profound impact.

The American With Disabilities Act (ADA)

Shortly after the deaf rights movement, deaf people joined in the hearings on and support of the passage of a new bill, called the Americans With Disabilities Act, which passed in 1990 and was amended in 2008. It’s one of the most important civil rights laws in the country’s history and helps many Americans in different situations, including those in wheelchairs, those with learning disabilities, and more. It’s a huge, sweeping law made to protect Americans from many forms of discrimination as well as help those with additional needs get the tools required to work and live safely. It may seem dense and complicated, but this legislation for people with disabilities is the major law that helps our society realize what behaviors are appropriate concerning deaf people.

What the ADA Means for Deaf People

Today, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces the ADA law. For deaf people, this means certain protections in several arenas:

  • Getting and Having a Job: There are restrictions when applying for a job, offering a job, or being employed at a business with 15 or more employees.
    • For instance, an employer cannot ask questions about the deaf person’s medical condition or hearing impairment in the job application process unless it pertains to their ability to perform essential functions of a job, with or without reasonable accommodation.
    • An employer must keep medical information completely confidential, with only very specific exceptions.
    • Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations so that a person may do their job without “undue hardship.” This may include a sign language interpreter, assistive technology, written memos, or other forms of accommodation.
    • Note that sometimes, an employer may ask for the documentation of a medical, legal evaluation of hearing loss to ensure that they can provide reasonable accommodations. There are specific rules around when and if this is appropriate.
    • The ADA also protects against several forms of harassment in the workplace.
  • Having Access to Public Accommodations: You should have equal access to a wide range of businesses, from theaters to grocery stores to insurance agencies to lawyers’ offices.
    • A public business can’t make a rule excluding all deaf people from the premises.
    • Most of this part of the law relates to blind people and braille, but still, an attempt should be made to communicate effectively with deaf people.
    • A public building or area should be safe for deaf people to navigate.
  • Accessing State and Local Government Services: No state is exempt from the ADA.
    • Services, programs, information, and activities on the state and local levels must be available to deaf people, from schools to the courts to libraries.
  • Getting Technological Access: A nationwide system of telephone networks should be accessible to people who are deaf and hard of hearing through a telecommunications relay service (TRS).

If you have questions about the ADA, the government has a massive FAQ page explaining many nuances of the bill. You can also get clarity about different legislation for people with disabilities from advocacy groups such as the National Association of the Deaf. They can answer questions like whether you should get a medical, legal evaluation of hearing loss or when to disclose that information.

Other Deaf-Relevant Laws

While the ADA may be the most sweeping and important law for the deaf, laws about other areas of life continue to be passed. Many of them touch upon new technological solutions like hearing aids and video access.

  • 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA): Making sure that laws from the 1980s have been brought up to date to today’s technologies, this law updates the telecommunications relay service, addresses issues like telephone-like equipment being compatible with hearing aids, and more.
  • Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA): This law addresses safety and accessibility for those with disabilities on airlines and in airports. After self-identification, suitable communication must be provided.
  • Hearing Aid Compatibility Act (HACA): This law from the late 1980s ensures that telephones are compatible with hearing aids. It was updated with the CVAA.

Obviously, it’s important to keep in mind that you also have rights as an American, not just as a deaf American, which may apply to your situation. For instance, if you’re a student who has had your personal information shared without your consent, you may find help in a hearing law called FERPA.

Know your rights with these resources and with the help of advocacy groups so that you can inform and empower yourself and others.