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No Wheelchair Ramp for the Deaf

Getting hearing access is a little more complicated

No Wheelchair for the Deaf

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One accommodation for the hard of hearing is an American Sign Language interpreter. But only a small minority of those who need it, use it.

Trying to get accommodations for those of us who are hard of hearing or deaf can be a long, tough slog.

Two years ago, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit against shipping giant FedEx Ground, charging it with discriminating against its deaf and hard-of-hearing employees and job applicants for years.

The EEOC alleged that the company violated federal law by failing to provide needed accommodations, such as closed-caption training videos, scanners that vibrate instead of beep, flashing safety lights and American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation.

FedEx filed a motion to dismiss the suit, but this year a federal judge denied the motion. The case is still under litigation.

All of which brings me to the sticky issue of accommodations — namely, that no one type works for all. There is no wheelchair ramp equivalent when it comes to hearing loss.

Although the FedEx case involves the specific needs of a particular workplace, the problems of hearing access challenge all of us and make asking for hearing access — even for something as simple as a better-equipped lecture hall — complicated. Which access do you ask for?

One accommodation that is routinely offered is an ASL interpreter. The problem is that only a small minority of those with hearing loss (less than 5 percent) use ASL. It's no more helpful to most than an interpreter speaking Hungarian would be.

Among the most widely used accommodations, found in theaters, houses of worship and public gathering places, are infrared or FM headsets. The person with hearing loss borrows a headset from the venue. Sound, which travels through the regular sound system and then wirelessly to the headset, is amplified. Sometimes these systems work well. More often they are helpful to those with milder losses but not for anyone else. They also work only as well as the microphone. It the microphone is badly positioned, the headsets won't deliver clear sound.

The technology that gets people most excited is induction looping. (Here's a short video about it.) This, too, works through the venue's regular sound system, and the sound quality is often excellent. It consists of a wire run around the perimeter of a room that transmits a signal, again wirelessly, to the audience member's own hearing aid or cochlear implant, set to the telecoil setting. If a hearing aid does not have a telecoil, or the user doesn't have hearing aids, headsets similar to those used for FM devices can be worn. Sometimes hearing people use them, just to hear better.

For some, the best option is captioning. This can be open captioning on a shared screen, similar to the captions on your television or subtitles on a movie. Or it can be closed captioning, sent to your personal device (an iPhone or iPad) or one provided by a theater. Generally this kind of captioning, called CART, which I described in some detail a few months ago, is live.

Scripts can also be scanned or typed into a new device being tested by Globetitles. It sends prescreened captions to personal devices, including computer and television screens, tablets and smartphones. The captions appear as red type on a black background, so they don't bother others. You can see a sample by clicking on the Globetitles link.

Unfortunately, no single system fits all needs. Some think captioning serves the largest number of people. Others like looping because you don't have to do anything except change the program on your hearing aid. Live captioning could be adapted to the kind of Sony glasses used in Regal Cinemas, or something like Google Glass could put captions right before your eyes.

Most venues will probably continue to offer one form of listening assistance (or none). But if that assistance does not serve a person with a hearing disability when another type of assistance would, that person can bring a lawsuit under the ADA.

As Lise Hamlin, the Hearing Loss of America Association's director of public policy and state development, emailed me in a discussion about accessibility: "You might be able to make a case for both a listening system and captioning under the ADA. The relevant phrase is 'effective communication.' The key is providing effective communication to each person who needs it. If even one person is denied effective communication, they can file a claim."

Most of us don't want to get involved in a lengthy lawsuit — we just want to understand the play or the sermon or the mayor's announcement or the community meeting or the visiting candidate. Is that so much to ask?

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