Head of Corporate Communications/Corporate Social Responsibility, Sony. Previously: Qualcomm and MP3.com. Former journalist & nonprofit CEO.
Unfortunately, hearing loss is a growing problem around the world. According to the World Health Organization, by 2050, approximately 2.5 billion globally are “projected to have some degree of hearing loss.”
As hearing loss cases increase, forward-looking companies are taking steps to ensure their products are accessible to those with this or other medical issues. TikTok, for example, added automated captions to videos on its platforms in April 2021. Instagram followed similarly by offering a captions sticker for its “Stories” feature.
These are commendable product decisions, and all companies should make their products and services accessible to those with hearing loss. However, companies should also be designing internal systems that make their employees with hearing loss feel supported. Employers have a moral duty and, depending on where in the world they operate, legal obligations to accommodate their employees with hearing loss.
It’s an issue I’m especially passionate about because a few years ago, I was that employee with hearing loss. In 2017, I had a scary realization: I was struggling to hear what my colleagues were saying—a health issue that would make any job difficult, let alone mine as an executive corporate communications leader at a global brand.
Unbeknownst to me, it was the culmination of a hearing loss progression due to otosclerosis. I had lost 80% of my hearing in both ears. As I went through getting hearing aids and undergoing multiple surgeries, my colleagues and bosses at Sony were supportive of my new normal. Today, my hearing is restored, but I want to ensure that others also feel supported by their employers as they undergo hearing loss.
Here are four impactful ways employers can ensure that their employees with hearing loss are heard. Of course, employers can apply the foundations behind these tips to support employees with other accessibility needs as well.
1. Make Employees Feel Comfortable Disclosing Hearing Loss
Many people never disclose their hearing loss to their employers due to stigma about the condition and the fear of repercussions. Companies can combat this mindset by running voluntary self-disclosure campaigns that encourage employees with hearing loss (and other medical conditions) to self-disclose.
For example, Sony now runs a campaign each March advocating for employees to self-disclose health issues to get access to the equipment and resources they need to make working easier. We have an employee resource group focused on access that guides the company in setting up these annual campaigns. This is something that other organizations could explore, too, as employee resource groups are a great way to build trust and help workers feel supported.
As they build corporate self-disclosure campaigns, employers should ensure that they follow all applicable laws (for instance, the Americans with Disabilities Act). They should also make the self-disclosure process comfortable and safe, communicating to employees that the organization is gathering information to provide necessary accommodations. After the first iteration of the self-disclosure campaign, employers should gather employee feedback and incorporate it in future campaigns.
2. Give Employees Access To Necessary Tools And Resources
Once employees self-disclose their hearing loss, companies should give them the tools and resources they need. As MedlinePlus states, these tools and resources will help employees “avoid becoming socially isolated,” “remain more independent” and “be safer.”
Employers can survey the affected employees or schedule one-on-one meetings to learn about their needs and get their suggestions. With this information, employers can determine which tools and resources will best accommodate their employees.
Some examples of tools include assistive listening devices and captioned telephones. A variety of apps and online tools are also available to assist those with hearing loss. One of the tools that helped me with my hearing loss is SonicCloud (disclosure: SonicCloud and Sony, my employer, have had a long-standing partnership).
3. Provide Health Insurance Options That Cover Hearing Aids
Arguably, the most essential tool is the hearing aid, as surgery is not an option for some forms of hearing loss. However, many medical health insurance plans do not cover hearing aids. To give you an idea of how expensive these out-of-pocket costs can be, when I got my hearing aids in 2017 (before the OTC Hearing Aid Legislation was signed into law), I paid $7,000.
Some insurers offer separate plans that may cover hearing tests and hearing aid fittings or even partially pay for hearing aids. Outside of a health insurance plan, hearing aids are also expensable under FSA and HSA accounts.
Companies should seek health insurance plans that cover hearing aids in at least some capacity. Suppose that’s not a possibility due to availability or budgets. In that case, they should inform employees with hearing loss that it’s possible to expense the cost of hearing aids through FSA and HSA accounts.
4. Start Corporate Social Responsibility Programs That Address Hearing Loss—And Consider Other Advocacy Efforts
Companies can positively impact their employees and broader communities dealing with hearing loss by starting corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs that address the issue while keeping several best practices in mind. For example, companies can align with hearing loss nonprofits or, if it aligns with their corporate ethos, sign up for conferences focused on accessibility, such as the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference (Sony attends this conference).
Many companies (such as Sony) make these efforts globally. In Sony’s case, the commitment recently led to us becoming a member of the global disability network, the Valuable 500. We’re one of the 500 companies that have committed to putting disability inclusion on their business leadership agenda. Actions and recognition like this can help set the bar for other businesses. Imagine a day where accessibility is something every company prioritizes.
Finally, companies can get involved with other advocacy efforts. For instance, House Democrats are currently trying to expand Medicare benefits to include vision, hearing and dental coverage. Companies can voice their support for this legislation and other future proposed legislation that touches on health access and inclusion.
By taking the steps above, companies can ensure that their employees with hearing loss are heard, acknowledged and respected. Not only does this boost engagement and productivity, but these actions can also help companies attract applicants with diverse perspectives who can optimize products and services for all people. Companies with a diverse workforce will create products that are accessible to all and will stay ahead of customers’ needs in doing so.