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Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Hearing Aids and the NYPD

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While failing a basic hearing test will cause you to get ejected from the New York City Police Department’s (NYPD) job application process, as of recently, if you are an existing officer with a hearing problem it could now cost you your job. Established in late 2009, the NYPD began forcing retirement on older police officers with hearing aids and compelling younger officers to avoid wearing them while on duty, according to the New York Times. Wearing a hearing aid would come with a disability discharge, since, according to the NYPD’s spokesperson, hearing aids are “vulnerable to mechanical failure, earwax buildup or any number of things, and could not completely compensate for hearing deficiencies that might render an officer unable to hear a command properly”.

This is creating a “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” situation that causes active officers that are hiding their hearing loss (and hearing aids) to become less effective at their job… and ultimately endangers lives and stigmatizes people.

Murky Waters

The NYPD once paid for these hearing aids, but now simply wearing one can end a police officer’s career. Granted, the department does not go on a witch hunt for individuals with hearing aids, but the whole situation is full of holes. One officer recounts that the department paid $3,000 for his hearing aid, then the police pension fund’s medical board subsequently ruled to retire him.

Paul J. Browne, the department’s chief spokesperson explained the system to the New York Times, saying that the department was “not actively looking to see if people have hearing aids.” In other words, they don’t ask about officers’ hearing health with any sorts of tests, and officers should likewise stay secretive about any hearing loss. “But presumably,” explained Browne,“if someone came forward and said, ‘I need a hearing aid,’ and it indicates that your hearing is diminished, then that could lead to a disability retirement.”

Hearing Aid Bans Hurt Everyone

Hearing aid bans like this are troubling on several levels. Most immediately problematic, the hearing aid ban endangers police officers and the people they are meant to protect. Police officers who cannot wear their hearing aids have reported difficulty understanding radio transmissions, and a citizen’s cry for help needs to be heard. Officers need to be alert as possible in all their senses.

On another level, this hearing aid ban stigmatizes an incredibly important assistive device. It suggests that hearing aid wearers are “disabled”, which can deter anyone from seeking out the assistance they need. In reality, hearing aids empower the people who wear them.

The Hypocrisy of the Hearing Aids Ban

In addition to endangering its officers, the NYPD’s hearing aid ban punishes officers for hearing loss incurred on the job. Police officers often report hearing damage from noisy subway patrols, doing traffic work, or in extreme situations like for instance when gun shots were fired. In short, the NYPD places its workers in situations that can damage their hearing, then imposes punitive measures when the officers seek treatment.

Combating the Hearing Aids Stigma

The hearing aid ban sends all the wrong messages. Hearing aids, especially modern ones, are tools of empowerment, and can help police officers (and anyone else) perform at their very best. Today, many deaf and hard-of-hearing members are standing up against this marginalization. In the most recent campaign, reports ABC News, citizens with hearing loss are fighting for the right to serve in the army. It’s time that especially public institutions stop looking at hearing technology as a signboard for disability. Thankfully, new technology and nifty designs are doing a great deal to change this.

 

Sources: Audicus Hearing Aids, The New York Times, ABC News, Flicker/Chris Willis

by Patrick Freuler

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