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Bill would expand workplace equality for the hearing-impaired

Leveling the field for the hearing-impaired

Posted

A bill recently introduced in the Nassau County Legislature would help level the playing field for hearing-impaired people in the workplace by amending the county’s human rights law to include hearing aids as a “reasonable accommodation” for the deaf or hard of hearing.

Legislator Josh Lafazan, an Independent from Woodbury who wrote the bill, said that reasonable accommodations, or “steps employers must take to assist employees with disabilities,” should include hearing aids and apply to those in both public and private employ.

The amendment, he said, would serve as a way to make Nassau County’s workforce more inclusive. He added that, morally, it would be “the right thing to do.” “How we treat people with disabilities says a great deal about the moral composition of our country,” Lafazan said, “and I believe that we should speak in a loud and unified voice to state that Long Island can be a place where everyone comes together and nobody gets left behind.”

The bill is expected to be voted on at a legislative committee meeting on July 15. If passed by the full Legislature and signed by County Executive Laura Curran, it would be the third piece of legislation Lafazan has shepherded into law to help the county’s hearing-impaired community since he took office last year. He wrote a bill mandating that the Nassau County Police Department create and distribute visor information cards for drivers who are hard of hearing, and another requiring the participation of American Sign Language interpreters in all emergency news conferences in the county.

Lafazan said the passage of the latest bill would build on his previous legislation by marking “another step forward to ensure inclusivity,” and open the door for more hearing-impaired people to find jobs in Nassau County.

“Not nearly enough individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing are in the labor force, yet they are more likely to be looking for work than people with normal hearing proficiency,” he said. “That is something we have to reconcile, and this bill does just that.”

Citing statistics from the National Deaf Center, Lafazan said it is “egregious” that just 53.3 percent of deaf Americans are employed nationwide, compared with 75.8 percent of the hearing population.

As with his previous legislation, he said he drew inspiration from Mill Neck Services, an organization headquartered in Mill Neck that helps the hard of hearing find employment through training and job-development programs. Lafazan said that his bond with Mill Neck has grown with each bill he has passed as he continues to seek ways to “amplify the voices of those who need to be heard.”

Christine Oddo, of Bayville, Mill Neck Services’ associate director, said the legislation would be a major turning point in providing hard-of-hearing employees with “the same opportunities as everybody else.” “Just the same as I wouldn’t be able to take a test without my glasses on, because I couldn’t read it properly,” Oddo said, “hearing aids and other reasonable accommodations are just as important to people who have hearing loss.”

She added that the bill amplifies Lafazan’s previous legislation by serving as a way to “educate and sensitize” employers in Nassau County in their interactions with the hearing-impaired, including during an interview or in the workplace. “Some people have an innate bias, because they’ve never thought about it or been educated on it,” Oddo said. “They don’t think about the possibilities that, given a reasonable accommodation, [hearing-impaired] people can be just as successful.”

Loretta Murray, Mill Neck’s executive director of policy, planning and advocacy, said the bill would help create a “more inclusive society,” because the reasonable accommodations would provide hearing-impaired individuals with “equal access.”

“At a time when the national unemployment rate is 3.7 percent, for people with disabilities the rate of unemployment is more than double that number,” Murray said. “We want to work, and with reasonable accommodations we can work.”

The bill, she said, would also help ease the job search among younger hard-of-hearing or deaf people. “As society has become more inclusive,” Murray said, “I want young people with hearing loss to have an easier time finding employment than many of us did, so I think this bill will help.”