1999 Conference Proceedings

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Carren J. Stika, Ph.D.
California School of Professional Psychology - San Diego
Rehabilitation Research & Training Center for Persons who are Hard of Hearing or Late Deafened

Marcia Finisdore, M.S.N, R.N.
Self Help for Hard of Hearing People, Inc. (SHHH)

Bob Elkins, Ed.D.

It is estimated that approximately 28 million individuals in the United States - about 1 in ten people -- have difficulty hearing. The majority of individuals with hearing loss are not born with hearing loss but, rather, acquire hearing loss later in life. Most of these individuals, over 25 million, are hard of hearing. An additional 1.5 million people experience late onset deafness. Only a small percentage of individuals with hearing loss, about 3%, are born deaf and require sign language to communicate. Traditionally, hearing loss is associated with increasing age. However, research is demonstrating that hearing loss frequently occurs at much earlier ages than previously recognized. Many individuals with hearing loss are between the ages of 18 and 65, and are viable and eligible members of the workforce.

Studies have indicated that hearing loss - even a moderate hearing loss - can and often does have a major impact on the individual's employment status. For example, statistics released by the Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 1994 indicated that individuals with hearing loss believe they encounter more discrimination in the hiring process. When employed, workers with hearing loss often report being afraid that, as their disability becomes more apparent to others in the workplace, they will lose their jobs, be demoted, or at a minimum no longer be considered as able to advance in their career or profession. Many report holding on to jobs that are inappropriate, inadequate, and/or unsatisfying simply because of fear of not being able to find and keep another job, and because of the difficulty and psychological stress involved in the job search and interviewing process.

Individuals with hearing loss often report that the strain of communication at the workplace causes substantial physical and psychological stress, which sometimes leads to its own set of additional health problems. Hearing loss is also frequently indicated as a reason for early retirement, simply because the strain of communication has become too significant to handle on a regular basis.

Studies conducted by Hetu et al. (1994) indicated that workers with hearing loss are in fact stigmatized by co-workers and employers largely based on attitudes resulting from limited knowledge about the manifestations and consequences of hearing loss, and ways in which hearing loss can be successfully accommodated in the workplace. We believe that if employees and employers knew more about hearing loss and how to accommodate it appropriately, many of the ensuing negative effects could be managed if not eliminated entirely.

Despite the significant impact hearing loss has on work experiences, accommodations that could significantly alleviate the effects of communication difficulties at work are typically not made. There appear to be multiple reasons for this. Employees with hearing loss are often reluctant to request accommodations or make use of assistive devices, believing that to do so will draw further attention to their hearing loss and communication difficulties, as well as reinforce the perception of them as "less capable" or "deficient" and needing assistance. Sometimes, requests for accommodations are not made because of lack of knowledge about various possible accommodations or assistive technology available that might be able to make a difference.

Further, despite guidelines established by the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), uncertainty exists for both employer and the employee as to who is financially responsible for providing accommodations in the workplace, as well as what types of accommodations can be expected. Finally, added to all of this is the common reluctance of many people to acknowledge their hearing loss at all, either in terms of its existence, or in terms of its actual or potential impact on them and their lives. Often, workers with hearing loss are not aware themselves of how their hearing loss effects them on their job.

It has been our experience that, although presentation of research findings sometimes may have an impact on professionals and employers, factual information accompanied by a narrative or first-hand story-telling approach is often a more powerful intervention. Therefore, for this workshop, we plan to first define the problem and present some specific factual information relative to hearing loss in the workplace, followed by discussion of specific case examples, delivered by panel members who have varying degrees of hearing loss.

Carren Stika, Ph.D., Director of Research at the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center for Persons who are Hard of Hearing or Late Deafened (RRTC) will serve as moderator and introduce the topic by describing some of the projects being conducted by the RRTC and recent research findings. Then a panel, consisting of Marcia Finisdore, M.S.N, RN, President, Self-Help for Hard of Hearing People, Inc., and Robert Elkins, Ed.D., President, SayWhatClub will describe their personal experiences of hearing loss in the work place.

Although we believe that there is no single way to handle hearing loss in an employment setting, strategies will be offered by the panel members based on their own experiences with hearing loss. Workshop participants will then be invited to share their thoughts and feelings regarding the issue of hearing loss in the workplace in general and the information shared by the panel members in particular.

Hetu, R., Getty, L., & Waridel, S. (1994). Attitudes towards co-workers affected by occupational hearing loss II: Focus groups interviews. British Journal of Audiology, 28, 313-325.

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