The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) turned 30 on July 26, 2020. This is an important milestone for all people with disabilities, including people with hearing loss. The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in several areas, including employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications and access to state and local government programs and services. It has improved the opportunity set for millions of Americans with disabilities and is to be applauded, but much work remains to reimagine and adapt ADA’s benefits to a changing world.
Reimagining the ADA for a Changing World
Many newspapers posted tributes to the ADA in July, featuring stories of progress and acceptance. Notably, very few included any mention of people with hearing loss. While it is wonderful to celebrate the progress that has been made, it is equally important to look forward at the challenges that remain. For people with hearing loss, much work is still needed before we can claim victory on equal access.
Increased News Coverage about Hearing Loss
Hearing loss is an invisible disability so it can often be overlooked or under-appreciated — even when celebrating the anniversary of the ADA. The New York Times’ month long exploration of the ADA had barely a mention of hearing loss, or even Deafness — hearing loss’ more photogenic twin. More than 48 million Americans have hearing loss, representing almost 15% of the U.S. population. Our progress is worth highlighting.
Over the past 30 years, there have been meaningful improvements in access for people with hearing loss in education, the workplace, and the arts. Communication Access Real Time Captioning (CART), FM receivers and note takers are now required accommodations in educational settings. Closed captions are routinely used on television, at many movie theaters, and increasingly on airline entertainment. Even Broadway theaters now offer captioning devices at most shows. Fellow blogger Katherine Bouton‘s recent post contains many other milestones worth celebrating.
Enforced Standards for Digital Communication
The ADA lays out specific parameters for access in public spaces, schools and workplaces, but it provides little clarity for online communications. This creates challenges for people with hearing loss when we try to enjoy un-captioned video content on Facebook or Twitter. As the world moves online, legislation needs to keep up. Without it, there is no recourse against companies that do not take the necessary steps to provide access.
Recently, Twitter announced a new audio feature, where rather than a tweet of 140 characters, you could send a voice tweet of 140 seconds. A clever idea, but without captioning, voice tweets are not accessible to people with hearing loss. It is unacceptable when new products are developed without a thought for accessibility. This would happen less often if the ADA was updated to include digital communications.
Readily Available Captioning on Video Conference Calls
While Google Meet and Microsoft Teams provide free auto-captions for everyone, Zoom does not. I am currently beta testing integrated auto-captioning on Zoom, and I am impressed with the accuracy and speed, but I am disappointed that the captions are not yet more widely available. For people with hearing loss, captions are our ramps.
After several months of global pandemic that has shifted much communication onto its platform, Zoom has had time to do better on access, yet it has not. Updated ADA language would force companies to act responsibly in a timely manner. To show your support for free auto-captions on Zoom, please sign and share our petition.
Regular Use of Clear Masks in Medical Settings
Going to the doctor is a stressful situation for everyone, but more so for people with hearing loss. Medical personnel must and should protect themselves with masks, but this makes it very difficult for people with hearing loss to understand what is being said. Masks that hide the bottom half of the face remove important speech reading cues.
Two FDA cleared clear masks exist — The Communicator and The ClearMask — but they are not commonly used in most medical settings. This needs to change, and I believe it will over time, as awareness builds and inventory levels normalize. Equal access to medical care should be a key factor of any updated ADA provisions.
More Stock Images of People with Hearing Loss
As a hearing loss blogger, I often turn to free image libraries looking for photos of people with hearing loss. Since people cannot look deaf, that often means searching for pictures of people wearing hearing aids. Unfortunately, these images are few and far between, especially ones featuring modern hearing devices.
Many times, I choose a photo related to the theme of the article instead, but mainstream media outlets often do not take this extra time. Instead, they use stock images featuring clunky and outdated looking hearing devices. You can see an example here.
Why is this a problem? Because it perpetuates the stigmatized idea that hearing aids are embarrassing, ugly, and that they need to be hidden. More realistic imagery would help break down this stigma and reduce some of the implicit barriers people face when considering giving hearing aids a try.
Readers, what is on your wish list for hearing loss accessibility going forward?