Workplace Harassment of Deaf and Hard of Hearing People

Sometimes deaf and hard of hearing people face workplace harassment, a form of discrimination on the job. Often the workplace harassment is obvious and hurtful but deaf and hard of hearing people may not know what to do about it. That was the situation faced by a deaf woman whose job involves physical labor and whose supervisors and coworkers mistreated her. Selected sentences from the long e-mail she sent follows:

I have been with this company for 10 years. I have taken the manager's test and passed 5 times. They still won't give me a chance. I don't know why. My problem is they all make jokes and fun of me for being HOH (hard of hearing). I hate it. Everyday for the past 10 years! I am also blind in one eye and that is treated as a joke. Now I am being told at my work that I am too loud when I speak. I tried to explain that my insurance does not cover new hearing aids and that one hearing aid has been broken for over 4 years. I have a hard enough time trying to pay my bills and can't even keep them up. So buying a new hearing aid is out of the question. I just seem to be getting more and more depressed. I wish I knew what kind of job a hard of hearing person can do. I am very strong physically and I can pick up my 220-pound husband. So lifting isn't a problem; it's hearing.

My recommendation was that she go to her local community college for training to get a better job, and also to her local department of vocational rehabilitation to see if they would pay for this training.

However, I had a feeling this answer might be unsatisfactory, so I posed the question to readers on the Deafness blog. Several readers responded, and here is an edited sampling of their comments:

"I cannot help but wonder if she should also seek some legal advice. She seems to be experiencing harassment in the workplace that is based solely on her physical condition and disability. In addition, she is working in what would be described as a ‘hostile workplace,’ which may mean she is entitled to receive workman’s compensation for the psychological injuries she is experiencing.

- E. Moran

"I have provided training to the workplace on how to improve deaf and hearing relations in the workplace for the last 10 years. I would recommend sensitivity training along with bi-cultural mediation which can help the manager/supervisor understand what communication really means."
- Vicki

"The Department of Vocational Rehabilitation in your area may be able to pay for your new hearing aids. Mine were free at their cost of $3,000...I have a question: Did you ever ask your coworkers to stop laughing at you and tell them how you expect to be treated? Adults on the job can be silly. Lighten up about it and tell them to stop it. At least you’ve told them you are hoh...Ask management at your company to put it in writing as to why you’ve been passed over for your promotion."
- R.W.

"I went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC]. Go to EEOC. They assign one of their lawyers to your case when they determine that you have cause...I got a large settlement... Also the company had to undergo sensitivity training by EEOC representatives. ...get a small notebook and write down every time someone bothers you, any kind of nasty comment...with the date, time, the person’s name, and exactly what happened...Arrange a meeting with HR [human resources] to inform them exactly what is happening...and follow it up with a letter...send it to your boss and HR, and keep a copy. You do NOT need to inform them that you have contacted the EEOC...When you have a record of the dates and events, send them to the EEOC to back up your claims. You should also write down the emotional effects. I wrote things like 'I went home and cried all evening and couldn’t sleep.'"
- Bandita

Legal Rights Under the Americans with Disabilities Act

Ordinary rude or uncivil behavior towards a deaf employee does not legally qualify as workplace harassment. What does qualify is negative behavior that is "severe" and "pervasive" to the point of creating a hostile or abusive environment. As an example that qualifies, the EEOC cites the fictional case of a man who has lost his hearing and whose co-workers frequently tease him for being deaf.

Legal Cases - Deafness and Workplace Harassment

In the Case of Lily Spencer (plaintiff) vs. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (defendant) in the United States District Court for the District of Delaware, Spencer cited incidents that she said resulted in a hostile work environment at Wal-Mart because of her deafness.

She claimed there was hostility when she requested interpreters, employees refused to communicate by writing notes, and she was followed too closely. In addition, her son testified in court that her supervisor had called her "stupid." Plus, her efforts to communicate and teach fellow employees sign language was greeted with hostility.

In another case, Mason vs. Wyeth (2006), ordinary teasing and pranks on a deaf employee were not considered harassment because all the hearing employees were also subject to teasing and pranks.

Final Thoughts on Workplace Harassment

Fortunately, I have never experienced workplace harassment. I did once have a supervisor who was not nice to me, but that would not have qualified as workplace harassment. I do know that whenever you face a situation that has legal implications, you should always document things. Documentation is the key to winning a case. I am not a lawyer, and readers who are presently dealing with workplace harassment should consult a lawyer.


Memorandum Opinion in Spencer vs. Wal-Mart, March 11, 2005. Pages 6 and 7.

Questions and Answers about Deafness and Hearing Impairments in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act

ADA in Focus Newsletter Fall 2006

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