Thursday, October 22, 2009

Helping Hard-of-Hearing Employees

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With workers staying on the job longer, there will likely be more difficulty with hearing loss. The remedies are often simple -- and inexpensive, experts say. Without such assistance, employers could lose productivity from some of their skilled employees.

In 1969, legendary coach Vince Lombardi noticed that his Redskins running back Larry Brown was responding late to the quarterback in the huddle. Taking a guess, he had Brown's ears tested and ordered him to wear an ear piece in his helmet.

Three years later, Brown was the NFL's Most Valuable Player and played in the Super Bowl.

Today, managers and HR executives could take a page from Lombardi's playbook. If an employee is suddenly missing information or zoning out in meetings, he or she could be having trouble hearing. That's not a surprising situation in the modern workplace, when older workers -- including senior-level leaders -- are staying longer, and boomers are coming out of retirement.

The real problem comes when an employee won't admit he or she can't hear, either out of pride, vanity or fear of retribution.

While it's statistically true that persons with hearing loss have higher unemployment and a big pay gap, admitting the problem and wearing hearing aids keeps them in the game, says Sergei Kochkin, executive director of the Better Hearing Institute in Alexandria, Va.

"The truth is, whether your hearing problem is treated or not, you are likely to lose some income in the course of your working life. But the research revealed that, on average, the income decline is cut in half for hearing-aid owners," says Kochkin, a former HR executive.

In a 2005 nationwide survey of 40,000 households, BHI found that hearing loss can cost household income up to $12,000, depending on the degree of hearing loss. But hearing aids cut the economic impact by 50 percent.

The study is still relevant today, Kochkin says. There are 24 million Americans with untreated hearing loss, and 65 percent are below retirement age, she says..

While experts agree there may be some outright job discrimination against the hearing impaired, it's more likely they are underemployed because untreated hearing loss translates as incompetence.

"It's the rare [employer] who'll go, 'Bill has hearing loss. I don't like him, and I'm not going to [pay] him as much,' " says Kochkin. "It's observed behavior and pure job performance."

"In general, there's absolute clear evidence people with disabilities are generally poorer, more isolated" and lack the education to compete, says Linda Kilb, an attorney with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley, Calif.

"In the modern age, there is an assumption that the disability created the limits," she says. Instead, "it's the limits in society [that create the limits] ... because someone assumes they can't [function]."

Curtis Decker, executive director, National Disability Rights Network in Washington, agrees that "there is a perception that people with disabilities are going to be problematic," based on myths that they cost too much to accommodate, miss more work or have trouble relating on the job.

"HR execs are really the key to help debunk the myths," he says, by helping managers identify workers with hearing problems and creating on-the-job accommodations, as required under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

"One of the best things you could do is teach employees the signs of hearing loss to see if they indeed have hearing loss. ... [Let the employee know] 'We value you as an employee. You're very important to us. We know if you hear better, you'll be a better employee to us,' " Kochkin says.

The first step is creating a work climate where the employee feels confident he or she won't lose the job or be demoted, he says. Let workers know the ADA protects their jobs, and requires the company to make any reasonable accommodation -- once the employee admits the disability.

"The law doesn't require HR to be clairvoyant," says Decker. Under the ADA, "the employee has to identify himself as disabled and request accommodations."

At the same time, the employer should not ask outright if the employee can't hear, Decker says. "If [an employee] says, 'I'm missing things when the boss speaks at a low level,' a ha, [the worker has identified the problem]. ... But if he doesn't self identify and ask for accommodations, he has ceded the right. Some are afraid to, because [they fear] the stigma outweighs any benefit."

"The employee is obligated to identify the need. ... The employer can't go rummaging in [his or her] personal business," Kilb says.

It's a good idea to specify in job descriptions when a hearing test is required, she says. However, medical evidence isn't necessarily required to establish a disability; under the ADA, disability is a "legal" definition, not a medical definition.

"There shouldn't be extensive analysis. It's a common sense approach," she says.

The employee's confidentiality is protected by the ADA; the privacy rule of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act only comes into play if HR requests records from a physician or audiologist, says Anne Hirsh, with the Job Accommodation Network in Morgantown, W.Va., a service of the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy.

As for reasonable job accommodations, "you don't ask a two-story building to build an elevator," says Decker. "If there is no other way, a [sign language] interpreter could be reasonable. You're not going to ask a private physician to hire an interpreter [for patients] but in a large hospital with an ER, maybe yes."

Accommodations aren't as expensive as many think, says Hirsh. "The typical cost is $600 per person, when there's a cost. Fifty-six percent [of surveyed employers] tell us there is no cost."

Easy accommodations include moving an employee's desk away from noisy hallways, copying machines, or air conditioning and heating vents, says Kochkin, or installing a phone that amplifies high frequency. Other simple remedies: Don't hold meetings in noisy restaurants. Summarize meetings in e-mails.

More costly solutions could include designing cubicles with noise-absorbent materials or equipping meeting rooms with an inductive loop that creates a wireless zone for hearing aids, headsets or microphones.

Instead of a costly interpreter, the office can use Communication Access Realtime Translation or Computer Aided Real-Time Captioning, which works like computerized court reporting. And a sign language interpreter can be saved for a special meeting, like a performance evaluation.

"Everybody is walking around with a Bluetooth in their ear, or an iPod. Who cares if you're wearing a little insert in your ear? ... A lot of that [stigma] is going away," Decker says.