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Over 42 million Americans have a severe disability, and 96% of them are unseen. 

Deafness and hearing loss affect more than 1.5 billion people around the world, and yet the ‘invisibility’ of this disability means that conversations around inclusivity and accessibility are not prioritized. This staggering percentage demands a new way of approaching disability, one in which we don’t stick to a definition based solely on the use of assistive equipment or someone’s external appearance. 

Deafness not only affects the individual, but also their family, friends, livelihood and even the economy. Individuals with hearing loss often have little to no support or means of accessible communication aids in the workplace. Without a support system, these individuals are shut out and held back from contributing their knowledge, abilities, and ideas. 

In honor of World Hearing Day earlier this month, Daniel Troast, an audiologist with HearUSA, spoke with Facility Executive about the importance of promoting an inclusive workplace environment for those with hearing loss.

Facility Executive: About 96% of Americans’ disabilities are invisible, yet little is being done to build and foster inclusive environments for issues we can’t see. What are the steps to bring that conversation to the forefront?

Daniel Troast: As it relates to hearing, the more we openly discuss hearing loss, its signs, and symptoms, as well as the solutions like hearing aids, the more normalized it becomes. By acknowledging it instead of overlooking it due to its invisible nature, we can foster environments of acceptance and inclusion. In any workplace, numerous reasonable accommodations can be implemented to support individuals with hearing loss, thus enabling them to excel. Therefore, it’s crucial to engage in conversations that bring visibility to the invisible challenges faced by these individuals.

FE: What are some practices for creating an inclusive workspace for the over 48 million Americans living with some form of hearing loss?

Troast: It’s important for employers to understand hearing loss and provide “reasonable accommodations” (as identified by the Americans with Disabilities Act). This is an employer responsibility, and these accommodations can involve various measures, such as ensuring meeting rooms have optimal acoustics and locating the offices or cubicles of employees with loss of hearing in quieter areas. Providing appropriate headsets and phones for individuals is essential. Additionally, organizing hearing screenings conducted by audiologists for employees can help identify any issues early on. Normalizing conversations about hearing loss is key to fostering an inclusive workplace environment. 

FE: What can facility managers do to help support those with hearing loss? Can you provide any examples of products or solutions that can help provide a better experience for employees or building visitors with loss of hearing?

Troast: Some suggestions are to:

  • Ensure that large conference rooms or meeting spaces equipped with microphones are looped, enabling individuals with hearing aids to directly connect to the sound system and receive the signal through their devices.
  • Provide a range of communication devices, including phones, tailored to the needs of individuals that need them.
  • Implement captioning options for video calls and meetings to enhance accessibility for all participants.

FE: Can you speak on some of the issues that one who’s experienced hearing loss may experience across high-level business environments?

Troast: Individuals with untreated hearing loss may face unfair perceptions of lower intelligence compared to their peers with normal or corrected hearing. Difficulty hearing or constantly asking for things to be repeated can contribute to a negative stigma, potentially affecting opportunities for promotions and other advancements in the office environment.

The use of hearing aids has a positive impact on an individual’s earning potential. Untreated loss of hearing can have a negative financial impact of up to 12K per year. The good news is that wearing hearing aids reduces this impact. In addition to hearing aid use, reasonable accommodations provided to the employee will improve communication and increase their abilities to maximize their full potential at work.

FE: How can workspaces, both internally and externally, destigmatize hearing loss, and encourage open conversations about its education and information sharing?

Troast: Destigmatizing hearing loss begins with initiating conversations, conducting professional screenings for all employees, and disseminating information about support measures for those with hearing impairments. Additionally, ensure discussions about hearing aid coverage are included during benefit reviews and open enrollment periods. Normalize the topic of hearing aids and loss of hearing, making it as commonplace as seeing someone wear glasses.

Healthcare benefits often do not cover hearing aids and related services, but they can be added as supplementary coverage. Employers should explore the possibility of including coverage for hearing testing and hearing aids as part of their benefits package.

Depending on the nature of the business, companies should refer to OSHA guidelines to determine if they need a hearing conservation program.

Click here for more on Workplace Accessibility. 

Facility Executive Magazine