Hearing Impairment and Employee Experience: What You Need To Know
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Institute on Disability as of 2018, approximately four percent of people suffer from a hearing disability. That’s over 13 million men, women, and children with hearing impairment. On the global stage, meanwhile, The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that disabling hearing loss impacts more than six percent of the world’s population, or 466 million.
Of these cases, 93 percent are adults, and a third are 65 years of age or older. What’s more, the WHO predicts that unless something is done, we could see the number rise from 466 million to nearly a billion.
Hearing impairment is, in other words, a fast-growing problem.
This is not surprising to me. Hearing loss is an incredibly common malady amongst older adults, caused by everything from genetic disease to the simple ravages of time. Beyond that, people today subject themselves to more potential hearing damage than at any other time in history.
We enjoy blasting our music, loud enough that it drowns out the world around us. We are constantly surrounded by the noise of city life, from heavy machinery to large-sized vehicles. And in spite of sound medical advice, many continue to insist on cleaning their ears out with cotton swabs.
You may wonder why I am telling you this.
Why is this relevant to you as an employer?
Simply put, if you are to create an environment that is simultaneously more welcoming to and more comfortable for hearing-impaired individuals, you must first understand the context in which you are operating.
You must understand the common causes of hearing loss, and the fact that it is far more widespread than most people are aware.
You must also understand how hearing loss most commonly manifests in the workplace, and of your role as an employer in overcoming the barriers it creates from recruitment, onboarding, through to the day-to-day.
A 2018 research paper hosted on academic database Taylor & Francis provides an excellent framework in this regard. Per the study, the most significant issues are as follows:
The impact of hearing loss on conversational capacity is extremely draining for employees. Accommodations such as telephone aids, assistance from coworkers, and electronic communication solutions were identified by study participants as especially valuable.
Many employees suffering from hearing impairment must frequently remind coworkers of their condition, forced to self-advocate, and self-manage their condition with little assistance. An open-door policy amongst organizational leadership and an overall prioritization of employee health and well-being is imperative.
Hearing-impaired individuals typically experience a disadvantageous labor market, marked by the assumption that disabilities will adversely affect productivity. Education is the solution here. Employees and leaders should be coached on the realities of hiring disabled employees, and the fact that with the right support and workplace culture, their disability need not be an impediment to effective work.
Where to start
Your first step should be a thorough examination of your recruitment process with regard to eliminating bias.
Ensure that your recruiters understand not only hearing impairment but also disabilities in general and that they understand that they should not allow their preconceptions to influence hiring decisions.
Staff should always be brought in based solely on their merits. If the best person for the job happens to be hearing-impaired, then you should hire them.
To that end, I would also advise including in your job postings that accommodations will be made for individuals suffering from disabling conditions. Note that you are willing to provide the necessary equipment, adjustments, and assistance throughout both the hiring process and within the workplace.
You may think such support is a given, and its inclusion is redundant. It isn’t.
Most employees looking for work understand that employers are, to an extent, required by law to make reasonable accommodations for disabilities. By noting these accommodations in your job postings, you indicate that they are a priority to you, that you won’t simply be going through the motions as required by law.
Believe it or not, where hearing-impaired employees are concerned, the business landscape generated by COVID-19 can actually work in your favor. The world has undergone a massive shift from traditional workplaces to distributed, remote work.
More people than ever are now choosing to work from home, and it is highly likely that even once the coronavirus pandemic is over, this trend will continue.
As an employer, this allows you to very easily make accommodations for your hearing-impaired employees. The very nature of remote work doesn’t generally require much verbal communication, with much collaboration occurring via email or within applications such as Slack. And for instances where virtual meetings are required, you can make things easier for hearing-impaired employees in a few ways.
Require that everyone in attendance own a webcam
This will allow your hearing-impaired employee to more easily understand what’s being said via lip reading. You may even consider bringing in a sign language interpreter in cases of complete deafness, or assign someone to transcribe the meeting into the chat.
Use closed captioning
Believe it or not, Zoom and most of its competitors actually include the ability to toggle speech recognition-based closed captioning for virtual meetings. It’s not perfect, of course — there is likely to be a hiccup here and there — but it can nevertheless be a great help.
Cut down on the chatter
Group conversations tend to be particularly overwhelming even in minor cases of hearing impairment, as one can often have difficulty sifting through the noise. As such, it’s worthwhile to enforce a policy in meetings that when one person is talking, everyone else is on mute.
Beyond that, it is simply a matter of understanding and acknowledging that even working from home, a hearing-impaired employee may be subject to certain time limitations and challenges that others are not.
It may also be worthwhile to speak to an audiologist or hearing clinic and collaborate with them to provide hearing exams and treatment to all employees.
Hearing loss can be devastating to one’s personal and professional life. In the long-term, the solution is better, more widespread access to affordable treatment. In the short term, however, everyone has their part to play.
As an employer, you are dedicated to an inclusive, welcoming, and understanding work environment.
Pauline Dinnauer is the VP of Audiological Care at Connect Hearing, which provides industry-leading hearing loss, hearing testing, and hearing aid consultation across the US.
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