What’s the Definition of Hearing Impairment?

Two men with hands to their ears signifying hearing impairment.

Our ability to hear allows us to communicate, interact with others and complete important tasks – particularly at work. Our hearing is an important sense that helps us connect to the outside world and stay safe. Despite these factors, we often take our hearing for granted.

Hearing loss can happen so gradually that you won’t notice it until your friends or family members mention it. Hearing loss, or hearing impairment, is typically defined as having a limited or total inability to hear sounds. If you are unable to hear sounds under 25 decibels in volume, you are considered to be experiencing mild hearing loss. On the other end of the spectrum, an individual is considered deaf when he or she has absolutely no – or very little – hearing.

Legally, hearing impairment is usually defined at the state level. For example, many states will define hearing impairment as loss of 70 decibels (or more) or the ability to discern speech at 50 percent or less with aids. Special education laws define it as any hearing loss that affects the ability to learn that is not covered under the definition of deafness.

A hearing test administered by a hearing professional will help you determine if you are experiencing hearing loss, as well as the severity of your hearing loss.

  • If you are having difficulty understanding quiet conversations or hearing spoken words across the room, you are most likely experiencing mild hearing loss.
  • If you have difficulty hearing conversations unless the other person speaks loudly, and listening in noisy environments is extremely difficult, you probably have moderate hearing loss.
  • If you have difficulty hearing quiet conversations or the ring of a cell phone, you are most likely experiencing moderately severe hearing loss.
  • Individuals experiencing severe hearing loss can only hear people when they stand next to them and speak very loudly.
  • Individuals with profound hearing loss are unable to hear loud speech or the everyday sounds around them.

If you believe you are experiencing hearing loss, you are not alone. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) reports roughly 37.5 million Americans, or 15 percent of the population age 18 and older, have reported some degree of hearing loss. The NIDCD has also estimated approximately 28.8 million people in the United States likely need hearing aids, but that among adults with hearing loss between the ages of 20 and 69, only 16 percent have them.

Hearing Loss & Hearing Impairment on the Job

Legally, all employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees with hearing loss, as stipulated in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Proactive employers will provide assistive technology to help employees with hearing loss perform their daily responsibilities. For example, employees who answer phones may be provided with a handset amplification system, videophone or captioned phone that provides a text display of the caller’s dialogue.

Employees who work with intercoms or paging systems may benefit from software that can turn intercom messages into texts or other video messages. Furthermore, an FM loop system can be utilized to broadcast audio messages directly to an individual’s hearing aid without background noise.

Employers searching for ways to accommodate employees with hearing loss can consult the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), as well as the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN). Workplace accommodations are often inexpensive, with most costing less than $500. However, your employer is not responsible for providing assistive devices or equipment for personal use, which includes hearing aids.

If you believe you’re experiencing hearing loss and it’s affecting your performance at work, please contact a hearing professional in your area immediately. These experts will determine your level of hearing loss and whether you would benefit from wearing hearing aids.

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