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CDC Report Highlights Disparities in Employment Among Individuals with Disabilities, Reveals Key Findings on Hearing Loss

The David J. Sencer CDC Museum at the Edward R. Roybal campus, the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia.

The David J. Sencer CDC Museum at the Edward R. Roybal campus, the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia.

According to a newly released report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), individuals with disabilities face significant employment barriers when compared to their non-disabled counterparts. Primary barriers identified include non-inclusive hiring practices, limited training opportunities, poor workplace communication and support, and discrimination.

In the report, the CDC argues that better workplace programs are needed to address "training, education, and workplace needs of employees with disability" to "improve workers’ ability to enter, thrive in, and advance in a wider range of occupations".

CDC's Disability and Employment Analysis

Analyzing data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), the CDC discovered that while 75.8% of noninstitutionalized adults without disabilities were employed, only 38.4% of adults with disabilities held employment.

The report, which considered responses from 395,141 participants, found that the highest adjusted disability prevalences were among workers in food preparation and serving-related jobs (19.9%), personal care and service (19.4%), and the arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media industries (17.7%). Meanwhile, the lowest disability prevalences were in the business and financial operations sector (11.3%), health care practitioners and technicians (11.1%), and architecture and engineering (11.0%).

A Closer Look at Occupational Hearing Loss

While the primary focus of the report was on inclusion, and which industries are most inclusive of those with disabilities, the findings also show how some occupations can actually create disabilities for those that enter the workplace. Hearing loss is a primary example.

The report offered substantial insights into the prevalence of hearing disability across different occupational groups. The highest prevalences were reported among five occupation groups: installation, maintenance, and repair (4.2%); construction and extraction (3.8%); production (3.5%); protective services (3.5%); and farming, fishing, and forestry (3.5%).

These industries are known to involve exposure to high noise levels due to machinery and work processes, implying a substantial risk for occupational noise-induced hearing loss. Occupational hearing loss is a significant health concern and is often due to sustained exposure to harmful noise levels in the workplace. This form of hearing loss is preventable but, once incurred, is permanent and potentially debilitating.

The data underlines the urgency for workplace safety measures to prevent and mitigate noise-induced hearing loss. Effective hearing conservation programs and the consistent use of hearing protection, like earplugs or earmuffs, are essential preventive strategies in these high-risk professions.

Adherence to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations on permissible noise exposure levels and routine hearing tests for employees in these sectors can also contribute significantly to the prevention of occupational hearing loss.

Additionally, workers should be educated on the risks associated with high noise levels and trained on proper use of hearing protective devices and other preventive measures. This proactive approach can help protect workers' hearing health, and improve overall safety and productivity in these sectors.

Detailed Analysis of Hearing Impairment among U.S. Workers

In this more granular look at hearing disabilities, we can dissect the data by various demographic characteristics such as age group, sex, race and ethnicity, education level, veteran status, access to healthcare, and household income.

Hearing impairment prevalence varies by age, with older employees demonstrating a higher incidence. In the age groups 18-24 and 25-34, the rates are relatively low at 1.9% and 1.7% respectively. As workers age, these percentages increase steadily: 2.1% for ages 35-44, 3.2% for ages 45-54, and reaching the highest point of 5.4% for workers between 55 and 64 years old.

It is notable that hearing loss rates were slightly higher in the 18-24 group than the older 25-34 group. This could possibly reflect the greater incidence of hearing loss that unsafe listening practices in adolescents and young adults.

Gender also presents a substantial discrepancy in hearing impairment rates. Men have almost twice the prevalence of hearing issues compared to women, with 3.8% of men experiencing hearing difficulties, compared to only 1.9% of women. Men have historically worked in noisier occupations, so this result is expected.

Racial and ethnic disparities also appear in the data. The hearing disability prevalence is highest among White, non-Hispanic workers at 3.1%, followed by Hispanic or Latino (2.8%), other race or multiracial, non-Hispanic (2.8%), and Black or African American, non-Hispanic (2.0%) workers.

Education level also correlates with hearing disability prevalence. Those with less than a high school education exhibit the highest rate of hearing impairment (4.4%). The rate decreases as the level of education rises, with high school graduates at 3.6%, some college at 3.2%, and college graduates having the lowest prevalence at 1.7%.

Veterans, likely due to exposure to noise during military service, face a significantly higher prevalence of hearing impairment (6.5%) compared to nonveterans (2.7%).

Access to healthcare shows a profound difference in hearing impairment prevalence. Those without access to healthcare have a higher rate (4.0%) compared to those with access (2.7%). Access to healthcare is critical in providing preventative care, managing chronic ear-related conditions, and providing access to education on healthy hearing habits. There is also a socioeconomic link in that those on the lower end of the spectrum are more likely to lack access to healthcare and are generally at higher risk of hearing loss, due to a variety of other factors like poor nutrition.

Lastly, the data demonstrates an inverse relationship between household income and hearing disability prevalence. The highest prevalence is among those earning less than $25,000 annually (3.9%), with the rate dropping as income rises: $25,000-$49,999 (3.3%), $50,000-$74,999 (2.9%), and over $75,000 (2.2%).

This analysis reveals significant disparities in the prevalence of hearing impairment among different segments of the working population. It suggests a need for targeted interventions and hearing conservation programs that take into account these demographic factors.

Overall Disability Findings

Overall, the report found that 14.8% of currently employed U.S. adults aged 18–64 years reported having a disability. Cognitive disability (7.0%) was the most frequently reported type, while self-care disability (1.0%) was least reported. Disability prevalences were higher among workers with less than a high school education, Hispanic workers, veterans, those lacking access to healthcare coverage, and those with a household income of less than $25,000 per year.

The Role of Employers in Improving Equity

The CDC report highlights the importance of employer measures in improving accessibility and providing necessary training for employees with disabilities. The U.S. Department of Labor offers resources like the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion and Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. These programs help employers integrate individuals with disabilities into the workforce, offering strategies for building a disability-inclusive organization and improving workplace access to new and emerging technologies.

According to the Job Accommodation Network, approximately half of job accommodations cost employers nothing, and three-quarters of implemented accommodations were reportedly "very or extremely effective".

Hearing Loss in the Workplace

While this is outside the scope of the CDC's report, further discussion on the role of employers is warranted. Employers play a crucial role in promoting workplace equity, particularly when it comes to individuals with hearing disabilities. Employers have the ability to make a significant impact by creating an inclusive environment and implementing reasonable accommodations for their employees.

Employers must foster an inclusive culture that respects and values all employees, including those with hearing disabilities. This can be accomplished by providing diversity and inclusion training to all employees and implementing policies that protect against discrimination. By doing so, employers can help to break down societal barriers and stereotypes associated with hearing disabilities, promoting a more equitable workplace.

In addition, employers should aim to implement reasonable accommodations for employees with hearing disabilities. This could include providing sign language interpreters, written communication, or assistive technology like hearing aids or captioning services. These accommodations can help to ensure that employees with hearing disabilities are able to effectively perform their job duties and participate fully in the workplace.

Employers should also consider disability in their recruitment and promotion processes. By actively seeking to employ and promote individuals with disabilities, employers can help to increase the representation of these groups in the workforce, promoting a more diverse and inclusive environment.

Employers play a significant role in improving equity for individuals with hearing disabilities. Through fostering an inclusive culture, implementing reasonable accommodations, offering flexible work options, and considering disability in recruitment and promotion processes, employers can help to create a more equitable and inclusive workforce.

Abram Bailey Aud

Founder and President

Dr. Bailey is a leading expert on consumer technology in the audiology industry. He is a staunch advocate for patient-centered hearing care and audiological best practices, and welcomes any technological innovation that improves access to quality hearing outcomes. Dr. Bailey holds an Au.D. from Vanderbilt University Medical Center.