Is Hearing Loss a Disability?
Sam Diehl, J.D. - Attorney, Gray Plant Mooty, Minneapolis, MN
Your rights under disability laws depend on whether your hearing loss is considered a legal "disability." Various laws use different definitions of disability, but the most common legal definition is the one used by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A hearing impairment is considered a disability under the ADA if:
- it substantially limits a major life activity;
Example: Hearing is a major life activity.
- it substantially limited a major life activity in the past;
Example: Your hearing used to be substantially impaired but is now improved due to surgery or an assistive device.
- you are regarded (or treated) as if your hearing impairment was substantially limiting.
Example: You use an assistive device that improves your hearing so that you are no longer substantially limited in a major life activity, but you are nonetheless treated differently because your employer believes you to be substantially limited.
This determination is made on a case-by-case basis. It's important to note that if you use "mitigating devices", such as hearing aids, cochlear implants, or other equipment that improves your ability to hear, these must be considered in determining whether you have a disability under the ADA. However, strategies that compensate for hearing loss, such as lip-reading or sign language, are not considered mitigating measures. This may change if the proposed ADA Restoration Act (HR3195) is passed. Then mitigating situations may not be considered. It is important that people with disabilities lobby for this or a similar restoration of the original intent of the ADA.
State and local laws and other federal laws may use a different definition of disability, but the ADA's definition is helpful to identify the factors necessary to determine if you are considered to have a disability under the law.
IF MY HEARING LOSS IS CONSIDERED A DISABILITY, WHAT ARE MY RIGHTS?
You have a number of employment, public accommodations, transportation, education, and communication, among other, rights under state and federal laws. While this article focuses on federal laws, many states and local areas have separate protections for people with disabilities. They are often similar to federal laws, but there can be important differences regarding who is covered by the law and what protection the law affords. So it is important to consider applicable state and local laws in addition to the federal laws discussed in this article. Rights for children in grades kindergarten through 12th grade are covered under another federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). See the Better Hearing Institute website for more information.
*Sam Diehl is an attorney with the law firm of Gray Plant Mooty in Minneapolis, MN. He represents and advises employers in all areas of employment law and litigation.