Despite advances in workplace rights and accommodations for people with disabilities, people still often have to deal with co-workers’ and even bosses’ questions and insensitivity. That may be one reason why last year the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) clarified its guidance for employers regarding applicants and employees with hearing disabilities.
A key part of this clarification relates to how much an employer has a right to know about someone’s hearing impairment and their obligation not to share information they have with others. Some employers believe that if an employee asks for accommodations for their disability, that gives them “carte blanche” to demand irrelevant information – and to share it as they choose.
Your rights when you request reasonable accommodations
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are required to make “reasonable” accommodations for employees with disabilities – meaning those that don’t impose “undue hardship” on the organization or employees. In the case of deaf or hard-of-hearing employees, they need to know what kind of accommodations in equipment, software and communications to provide, for example. They don’t need to know how they became hearing-impaired, if their parents, spouse and children are deaf, if they’ve ever met Marlee Matlin and other irrelevant questions.
When someone requests reasonable accommodations for any disability, employers have the right to require official documentation (like a letter from a doctor) stating what kind of accommodations they need. However, that only has to address accommodations – not the disability. They don’t have the right to require medical records they wouldn’t seek from any other employee.
You can share information as you choose, with whom you choose
Some people don’t mind discussing their disability with their boss beyond what they need to know. However, that boss is required to keep that information confidential unless given permission to share it. That includes information about any accommodations. For example, if your boss notifies the IT department that you need adaptive software on your computer or a special phone, they don’t have the right to discuss everything you’ve shared with them. Again, the focus needs to be on the accommodations – not the disability.
If your boss or others in authority aren’t protecting your rights to privacy, you have a right to assert those rights. Too often, such insensitivity is just one sign of a larger pattern of discrimination that can affect your ability to be considered for the same opportunities as anyone else with your qualifications. If you believe you’ve suffered workplace discrimination, it may help to get legal guidance to discuss your options.