by Neil Bauman, Ph.D. with Hard-of-Hearing Friends
A lady explained,
I have a cochlear implant and I believe that I do well with it and understand most of what is said. For example, on conference calls, for the most part, I understand most of the dialogue. I may need to periodically request a repeat, and I sometimes need someone to summarize the topic of conversation so that I can have greater context for what I hear. Because I understand the majority of the conversation, I don’t feel that I need expensive accommodations such as real-time captioning (CART) or an interpreter.
I am concerned about the cost of using accommodations such as CART or an interpreter regularly because I hear my colleagues complain about the expense of these accommodations on our bottom line. I don’t want to create an undue burden for my employer.
Can an accommodation be simply a request to repeat information periodically? Could it be a request to summarize material periodically? Can an accommodation be something that is more a matter of human consideration? Or, does an accommodation need to be something like CART or an interpreter?
These are excellent questions. I commend you on wanting to use “free” accommodations as much as possible in order to reduce the financial cost to your employer.
The truth is, an accommodation is anything that works for you that is not a burden for the employer to provide. Request only what you need. This may make your employer more accommodating when you really do need something that costs more such as CART.
However, you shouldn’t be primarily concerned about the cost of the accommodations you need. As Emilie explained, “Don’t be concerned about that. Do be concerned about effective communication. Sure, cost is a consideration, but if you are not able to do your job because of poor communication, then you may be terminated.” Therefore, “talk to your boss, brainstorm, see what you can come up with together that would not be too hard and not too expensive, but well worth it to help you understand speech better.”
According to Patricia, here are some facts about accommodations that you should know.
1. An accommodation can be a change in process or the way a job is performed to enable the person with the disability to perform the job better.
2. A person requesting an accommodation does not have to say ‘reasonable accommodation’ but can say they need a change at work for a reason related to a medical condition.
3. A request does not have to be in writing—it can be made verbally or through another mode of communication (an interpreter for example). The request must be considered as soon as it is asked.
4. The accommodation does not have to be granted if it provides an undue hardship to an employer (the employer must be able to prove this).
5. An employer does not have to remove any essential functions of the job or lower standards of performance of the job as these are considered undue hardships.
6. Typically, an employer does not have to provide personal use devices (hearing aids or assistive listening devices [ALDs]) but they can if they choose to do so. (For example, if repeating what is said is seen as a hardship or disruptive in meetings, they may choose to purchase an ALD that could be used at all future meetings.)
7. An undue delay of providing the requested accommodation can be seen as a denial. If this happens, an employee has a right to file a complaint if it is not acted on in a reasonable length of time, based on the complication of the request (an easy request would have to be provided or denied fairly quickly).
8. An employer can choose a different accommodation than the one requested assuming it solves the problem.
9. Employers can receive tax benefits for providing reasonable accommodations, but they must document it.
Therefore, in answer to your first question, yes, having statements repeated would be an acceptable accommodation if it solves the problem. However, as Emilie notes, “What you need is something that is effective for you—hopefully without the need to ask for repetition.” Obviously, if you have to keep asking for repeats, you don’t have effective accommodation in the first place. Emilie agreed, “I might ask someone to repeat something they’ve said, but if you are asking for a summary, I don’t think you are getting enough accommodation.”
In response to your question, “Can an accommodation be something that is more a matter of human consideration?” Emilie explained, “Sure, if it works and doesn’t mess up anything else. Generally, you can only trust people to be considerate if it doesn’t cost them more than a moment’s effort, once. If you are asking them to change their behavior, you’re swimming upstream. That’s just human nature. It really doesn’t have anything to do with you or with them. People like their patterns [habits].”
Be aware that there can be some pitfalls with requesting certain free accommodations such as having things repeated for you. As Patricia explained, “I do know, having been in the presence of some people in the past who either had extremely soft voices or were passive aggressive (or both)—that this isn’t as ideal as being able to control the volume on an assistive device yourself.”
Fred was a bit more explicit. He noted, “The problem with a ‘behavioral’ accommodation is that when (not if) you don’t get it, or stop getting it, they can deny the refusal. They’ll say, ‘Oh, yes, we do that every time.’ And you can’t prove that it isn’t happening. An accommodation that involves a physical item has a paper trail, or at least some tangible evidence whether or not it is happening. Many hard-of-hearing people have experienced horrendous amounts of unkept promises.
Furthermore, requests to repeat often offend the mumbler, both as an implicit insult, and are even misinterpreted as being deliberate harassment of the mumbler.”
Fred further explained, “An accommodation can be anything. It can be rearrangement of offices, meeting rooms, etc. It can be reassignment of yourself or others to do different duties or work with different people. It can be replacement or supplemental equipment. It can be scheduling such as ‘pause all discussion whenever the hallway is full of screaming lunch-goers’ It could be, ‘rearrange the conference room so that the presenter is not backlit’.”
In addition, Marjie explained, “You can also ask for accommodations such as a desk that faces the entrance to your office, an office instead of a cubicle if speech understanding directly affects your job, or permission to put up a sign that says ‘Please get my attention before you talk to me’ and other such things that help you communicate better in the workplace.”
She further explained, “Our office had amplifiers on the telephones but instead of a headset hooked up to it like most people in my group had, I had a neckloop provided to me (I had t-coils in my hearing aids) and that let me use both ears to listen to conference calls.”
Furthermore, an accommodation could be as simple as asking for preferential seating in front of the speaker. Marjie noted, “I had a boss that would have me sit close to her so I could hear and speechread during meetings where the boss was the main speaker. When it came time for questions and answers the boss would repeat the questions that other people asked for me to be included. Later she bought a karaoke machine (as it was cheaper than a public address system) for the microphone and speaker in it. It helped everyone in a large meeting room hear better, so these things aren’t always just a benefit for you alone.”
Another free accommodation is simply asking that the speaker stand in one spot when talking. Unfortunately, some speakers are just “wanderers” and roam all over the room. Short of putting crazy glue on the soles of their shoes, it is hard to have the speaker change this habit.
As Richard notes, “I recall going to classes or meetings and moving around to get closer to a speaker who would just not stand still. He/she would walk all around the room in and out, left to right, and talk so constantly that one could not interrupt or be rude enough even to get in a request to stand still for goodness sake. I have gotten up and moved from seat to seat to get close to the speaker so many times that you would think the message would have gotten through. And of course, I had told the moderator well beforehand that I would need accommodation like this.
Sometimes the speaker may be using the lectern microphone and when he moves, there goes the sound.”
Since it is so hard to get people to change their speech and presentation habits, a better approach is to request technology to largely overcome these problems.
For example, in Richard’s case, moving around doesn’t always work because, by the time you have moved to where the speaker is, he has likely moved elsewhere, and if all the seats are taken, it doesn’t work anyway.
Therefore, in such situations, using an FM system with a wireless microphone clipped to the speaker’s collar would be a reasonable solution to hearing the speaker as he moves around. However, it would not be conducive to speechreading, and for people like myself that need to speechread as well as hear in order to get the message, even this isn’t a good enough solution.
In addition to putting a microphone on the speaker, you’d also need a second wireless microphone to pass around for when attendees ask questions or make comments from the floor.
Marjie used these kinds of accommodations at times. She explained, “I used to go to workshops a lot and I would request the accommodation of the speaker using the microphone at the location and me being able to plug my FM system into the public address system (PA) (or placing my FM microphone next to the one on the lectern and if a speaker was one that walked around, for that person to wear my microphone).”
She even had bosses willing to make sure such accommodations were effective. For example, “Once a speaker said ‘I talk loud, I don’t need to use this microphone, do I?’ to which the representative from my company, from the back of the room, yelled ‘Yes, you do!’ loud enough for even me to hear it.”
If you have a sympathetic employer that truly wants to accommodate you, such as Marjie had, that is great. Unfortunately, when you ask for accommodations, as Fred explains, “too many employers may actively seek out the minimum that they can do to provide as little help as possible while still being able to claim compliance, and/or insisting that what they are doing, such as a ramp, is all that they are ‘required’ to do.” Therefore, you have to watch out that your employer does not take advantage of you and your specific hearing needs.
Therefore, it is wise to present your request for reasonable accommodations in writing. One hard-of-hearing lady explained, “I called the Office of Civil Rights in Washington, DC and a most helpful person coached me on how to write a letter to formally advise my employer I had a hearing loss that had degenerated to a point where I needed the following no-cost accommodations:
Repeat what was said upon request.
Preferential seating in meetings (close to speaker).
Ask for the person speaking to face me when talking to me.”
In addition, she noted, “You do have to notify your employer if you plan on asking for accommodations. I used my notification letter to calm my employer about my present accommodation needs.”
Free accommodations such as “face me when you talk” when asked by the hard-of-hearing person don’t cost the company a penny and thus cannot be contrived as causing them an “undue burden”. I’d bet that if you asked an employer for a simple, free accommodation, most reasonable and conscientious employers would consider either that, or doing something else to accommodate you since these kinds of accommodations don’t impact their bottom line in the least.
However, if your employer isn’t accommodating, you can explain that according to the ADA you will ask for something effective such as CART and that will cost them a lot more.
I’m all for using accommodations that are free if they will work for you, and only ask for the accommodations that cost bigger bucks when there is no other simple way to effectively help you hear. But always remember, make sure whatever accommodations you ultimately choose are effective for you because it will be your job on the line if you don’t!