Recent estimates indicate that 11 million people in the UK suffer with hearing loss to some extent, ranging from some level of hard of hearing to profound deafness. An estimated four million of these people are of working age with the employment rate for people with a hearing impairment unfortunately being significantly lower than the national average. Affected individuals often face significant barriers either in finding work or experiencing discrimination in the workplace. It is therefore important that employers understand how to provide effective support to employees with hearing loss to both reduce barriers they may face and comply with their duties under the Equality Act 2010 (2010 Act).
Employers have responsibilities under the 2010 Act to those employees who have a disability which is a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out their day to day activities. 'Long term' means lasting, or likely to last longer than 12 months. Hearing loss of any form has the potential to fall within the legal definition of disability, entitling them to protection under the 2010 Act. How they are affected will depend significantly on the nature of the hearing loss and includes individuals who are born deaf, who gradually becoming hearing impaired and may not yet realise they have a problem, or have hearing loss and use hearing aids or other hearing devices and use sign language. Such employees will often feel isolated at work. If not supported, it can result in them leaving employment and the workforce altogether. For example, an employee suffering from hearing loss may not be able to easily participate fully in meetings or speak on the phone to customers or, especially in an open plan office, employees may be unable to hear colleagues properly.
How employers should best support such employees and fulfil their obligations under the 2010 Act needs to be considered in the context of the particular employee's disability, taking into account both information provided by the employee and, if necessary, further medical information from an outside source. It is important that employers do not just rely on the employee raising the prospect of a disability but proactively seek this. Knowledge of the disability may be assumed if the employer reasonably ought to have known about it.
Employers are under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate an employee's disability and remove barriers wherever possible. What exactly these adjustments are will depend on the individual's specific circumstances and needs and the employer should work with the affected employee to determine what exactly these are and how they can best and most efficiently be addressed. Adjustments that may need to be made for employees with a hearing impairment may include:
The good news for employers is that modern technology is making it easier and cheaper for companies to assist employees who suffer from hearing loss and integrate them as far as possible into the workplace. Many of the adjustments listed above can be made using existing software used by the employer.
If an employer fails to make reasonable adjustments for a disabled employee, it may face potentially unlimited liability in the event a successful discrimination claim as well as the costs and reputational risks involved with fighting such a claim.
The vast majority of the adjustments needed to assist a deaf employee will be relatively simple and inexpensive for an employer to make. However, employers are only required to make 'reasonable' adjustments and are not expected to facilitate every required adjustment regardless of the cost and impact on the business.
Determining whether an adjustment is 'reasonable' will include a range of factors, including the practicality of the adjustment, its cost, its impact on the business and other employees and the likely effectiveness of the adjustment. The size and resources available to the employer will also be considered, with more generally expected of larger, better resourced organisations.
For example, an employer may be expected to provide a specially adapted phone for a deaf employee if they need to use this as part of their work and the company's standard offering isn't fit for purpose. Such a purchase is unlikely to be a significant outlay and would have a beneficial impact on the employee while having no negative impact on the wider business. Likewise, allowing a deaf employee to choose where they sit in meetings to mitigate their hearing difficulties or enabling them to take phone calls or speak to colleagues in quieter office areas like meeting rooms will be easy adjustments for most employers to make.
Naturally there are cases that will not be so clear cut. Providing a deaf employee with their own office, hiring a full time interpreter or buying expensive new software may well be a disproportionate adjustment when weighed against business needs, especially for a smaller employer.
Employers should be aware of the 'Access to Work' scheme which offers government grants for equipment to help disabled people stay in the workplace. Employees apply for these grants but given that this option exists, to take the example of hearing aids, assisting an employee with their Access to Work application may be a more reasonable adjustment than, for example, paying for an employee's hearing aids.
Employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace not only for current but also prospective employees. Employers should ensure that their application forms and interview processes establish early on whether an applicant has a disability and then make reasonable adjustments accordingly. As an example, if an applicant suffers from hearing loss, an initial phone interview may need to be changed to a face-to-face interview to accommodate the individual's needs.
Deafness and hearing loss is an issue that affects millions of employees in the UK. An employer's attitude can result in affected employees both struggling to find, and remain in, employment, so it is important for employers to understand the issues which may arise and provide appropriate support through reasonable adjustments in the workplace. This will primarily be done through engaging directly with the employee but also by seeking appropriate external guidance where necessary. A useful starting source of guidance is the publication by Department for Work & Pensions with NHS England - What works: Hearing loss and employment