With 35 million American adults – including 26.8% of those 65 and over – suffering from some difficulty hearing (even with a hearing aid), this all-too-common issue not only increases with age but can lead to a host of negative effects.
“Hearing loss has been shown to negatively impact nearly every dimension of the human experience,” the Hearing Loss Association of America reports, “including physical health, emotional and mental health, perceptions of mental acuity, social skills, family relationships and self-esteem.”
Yet, new innovations and development are giving the hearing-impaired population better access to hearing assistance that complements their personal devices, including when they attend public events. Many communities, organizations and businesses are now making these options a priority for their infrastructure.
What are the types of hearing aid devices for public spaces?
A number of systems are in use to help the hard-of-hearing in public areas:
- Hearing (or induction) loop: A hearing loop uses electromagnetic energy to transmit sound. The system involves four parts:
- A sound source like a public address system or a microphone
- An amplifier
- A thin loop of wire laid out in the room
- A receiver placed in the ears or worn as a headset
- FM systems: These systems use radio signals to send amplified sounds.
- Infrared systems: These use infrared light to transmit sound.
- Personal amplifiers: These are useful where no system is provided by a location.
Communities and corporations are providing support
In both significant and modest ways, communities, corporations and companies are working to make it easier for hearing-impaired customers to enjoy theater, films and other events.
In New Jersey, grants are now available for counties to improve and expand communication aids for deaf and hard-of-hearing residents. The $400,000 program will be funded through the New Jersey Human Services Division of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
According to Insider New Jersey, counties may use the funding to implement the following initiatives:
- Installation of hearing induction loops that improve hearing and communication for individuals with hearing aids
- Installation of public videophones to help individuals who use sign language to communicate (and associated connectivity costs)
- Expanding access to sign language interpreter services
- Expanding access to captioning services, which helps improve access to content for those who have hearing loss
- Development of community, educational or health care-related programming or services that are accessible in American Sign Language.
In Alexandria, Virginia, the Andria Theater received a grant to install a hearing loop system, which will allow their hearing-impaired customers to enjoy entertainment more fully.
According to Rick Korenick, vice president of Midwest Hearing Loops, the company that installed the system, “People can hear right from their hearing aid. [The loop system] takes the audio and puts it right through their prescription. With the hearing loop system, it keeps people in the conversation.”
AMC Theaters announced in 2021 it will be adding open captioning at 240 theaters across the country. Unlike closed captioning, open captions (similar to subtitles) cannot be turned off. AMC says the vast majority of showtimes will still offer closed captioning, with hearing devices available for those who want them.
An expert says more needs to be done
Shari Eberts is a hearing loss advocate who has adult-onset genetic hearing loss. Her blog, Living with Hearing Loss, and her book, Hear and Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss (co-authored with Gael Hannan), offer support, information and community to those who, like her, are living with hearing loss.
Eberts believes a lot still needs to be done in public spaces to make it easier for people with hearing loss (PWHL) to access information and live independently.
“Ideally, all public events and online media content would provide captioning,” she said. “This benefits not only PWHL but also people for whom English is not a first language and people with other auditory processing disorders as well.”
Eberts also said announcements in airports should be captioned on screens, and that portable loops are easy to set up and should be available at check-out counters, in subways, taxis and other public transportation. She’d also like to see easy on-off captioning on Zoom, which currently requires the user to request closed captioning from the meeting host.
According to Eberts, a great innovation in captioning is GalaPro, a smartphone app that provides captioning for any performance of a Broadway show after the first four weeks of the run.
Living with hearing loss shouldn’t be a constant battle for accommodations and assistance. As more public spaces, schools, theaters and transportation companies install systems to allow hearing-impaired patrons and customers to access information and enjoy performances, it will make life better and easier for them. It shouldn’t be a question of if these processes are added, but when.