I recently had the opportunity to speak as part of a training module on accessibility to the front of house staff at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall and Alice Tully Hall. It is wonderful when influential cultural institutions take a leadership role in promoting the importance of accessibility to their employees. I was pleased to be a part of the presentation, and to highlight hearing loss as an accessibility issue for the ushers.
I share the text of my remarks below.
I want to thank Lincoln Center for asking me to come speak to you today about hearing loss and the arts, two topics that are near and dear to my heart.
My name is Shari Eberts and I have had hearing loss since my mid 20s. It is genetic — my father had it too — but we have never gotten a proper diagnosis. I have worn hearing aids for 20 years, at first reluctantly, but in the last several years I have become a hearing loss advocate, writing a blog about Living With Hearing Loss and sitting on the national board of Hearing Loss Association of America.
WHAT CAN I TELL YOU ABOUT HEARING LOSS?
Hearing loss is a widespread issue affecting almost 50 million Americans. This includes 1 in 5 teens and 60% of returning veterans from foreign wars.
It is not an issue for just the old. People are often surprised to learn that 65% of people with hearing loss are under the age of 65.
The best way I know to explain hearing loss is as a game board from the Wheel of Fortune. Some of the letters are filled in, others are blank. The contestant (or listener in this case) is trying to make sense of the assorted and incomplete sounds he or she is hearing and turn these sounds into a word or phrase that makes sense in the context of the conversation.
It is also useful to point out that hearing aids don’t work like glasses. Glasses can transform an image that is blurry and distorted into something crisp and clear. So if you wear glasses, in most cases, you can see just like someone with typical vision, or pretty darn close.
With hearing aids, this is not the case. Hearing aids are helpful in amplifying sounds, but this just makes them louder, not necessarily crisper or clearer. Most people with hearing loss can hear that someone is talking to them; they just can’t understand what words are being said. The clarity is not there.
Hearing aids also have a tough time differentiating among sounds so that the background noise — like the hum of an air conditioner or the buzz of a busy theater lobby — is amplified in addition to the more important sounds of the conversation. This can actually make it harder to hear in certain situations!
TIPS FOR COMMUNICATING WITH PEOPLE WITH HEARING LOSS
I want to share some tips for better communication with people who have hearing loss.
1. Make sure you have their attention before you speak to them. Talking to them before they are ready will have them playing catch-up and make it harder for them to understand you.
2. Make sure they can see your face. Lip-reading is helpful in filling in the blanks of what is not heard. I always tell people, “I can’t hear you if I can’t see you.” Don’t cover your mouth with your hands and make sure that you are facing them when you speak.
3. Enunciate clearly and speak at a steady rate. Remember that volume is only part of the problem. Clarity of the sounds is really key. Speak your words clearly, and try to maintain a regular pace of speech. Rapid speech is very difficult to follow since all that brain processing time is condensed, while slower than typical speech will look weird on the lips and make lip-reading less useful.
4. Be prepared to repeat or rephrase. If the person doesn’t understand you the first time (and you were following all the other rules) try to rephrase what you said using different words that might be easier for the person to hear. You could also use written signs with common questions or pieces of information if you think that would save time. Particularly at the assistive listening device area.
LET’S TALK ABOUT ASSISTIVE LISTENING DEVICES
Sometimes people with hearing loss avoid cultural events like concerts and plays for fear they will not be able to enjoy the experience. They worry that they won’t be able to hear the actors or feel the emotion of the music or understand the dialogue in a show.
But assistive listening devices (ALDs) make all the difference so thank you for making them available!
The most common are infrared headsets. As someone who has worn these for years, I can tell you the sound quality is mixed. And the hassle of standing in line both before and after the show to get them is not great, BUT it is worth the effort if they work well.
Please keep them in good working order. Test them regularly. If they don’t work, all that standing in line can be very frustrating. It is also important to explain to the user to remove his or her hearing aid before using the headset to avoid unwanted feedback.
FM systems are also often available. You still need a separate device, but with these you can connect either by plugging in headphones or linking directly to your hearing aid via the telecoil setting.
Hearing or induction loops are growing in availability and are a favorite option for many people with hearing loss. A hearing loop is a wire that encircles the stage and seating areas that connects to the venue’s sound system. The loop creates electromagnetic waves that are transmitted directly to a telecoil enabled hearing aid or cochlear implant.
Users like them because the sound quality is great and no additional devices are needed, reducing the hassle and stigma. The people on stage like them too since there are no feedback issues.
Last, but certainly not least is open captioning, which is a text display of all the words and sounds on stage — like closed captioning on your TV — but these are displayed real-time in sync with what is happening in the show. These work great for live theater.
Readers, what would you add to my talk?