#DisabilityAwarenessMonth #InclusionWorks

This October, as we celebrate Disability Awareness Month, Lincoln Center shines a light on outstanding work and developments that increase participation in the performing arts for people with disabilities.  We’re excited to see more focus recently on the “largest minority in the world,” including a dedicated column exploring the lives of people living with disabilities in The New York Times. For our part, we're taking an in-depth look at some of the communities in our city and how they interact with cultural events. Today's subject: hearing loss.

According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, around 20 percent of Americans (or 48 million people) report some degree of hearing loss. While people begin to experience hearing loss at varying stages in life, by age 65, one out of every three people has a form of hearing loss. The National Academy of Sciences recently published a report calling for greater access and affordability of healthcare for people experiencing hearing loss, referring to hearing loss as “a significant public health concern.”

To gain some perspective on hearing loss and the effect of the accommodations provided in our halls, I reached out to Shari Eberts, a hearing health advocate and writer. Shari is on the Board of Trustees of the Hearing Loss Association of America, and her blog, Living with Hearing Loss, works to raise awareness, address issues in the community, and provide personal insight into life with hearing loss. She shares with us how the effects of hearing loss and associated stigma can affect someone’s interest in attending a concert, and provides her opinion on the current technology in the field:

Sometimes people with hearing loss avoid cultural events like lectures, 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 speaker or feel the emotion of the music or understand the dialogue in a show. But this does not have to be the case. From the ticket-buying experience through the performance itself, there are many ways cultural institutions can be more welcoming to people with hearing loss. Assistive listening technology makes all the difference.

There are many types of assistive listening technologies, but the best ones are discreet, ensuring the user is not singled out for needing the help. Unfortunately, hearing loss remains highly stigmatized, with many people unwilling to acknowledge or treat their hearing loss. This prevents them from utilizing certain technologies like infrared headsets for fear of embarrassment. They don’t want to be set apart by wearing a large and noticeable device or inconvenienced by standing in long lines before and after the show to obtain and return the devices. Plus, the sound quality is not particularly good.

Hearing loops (Induction Loops built into a theater or performance area) and open captioning are much better options. The sound quality of a hearing loop is outstanding (assuming it is installed properly) and can be accessed directly from the person’s hearing aid. No additional equipment is needed. There is no need to wait in line. It is discreet, hassle free, and very effective. A hearing loop can be life changing for someone who has not fully experienced the melody of a symphony or caught the punchline of a comedy for years.

The same is true for open captions. The caption equipment can be set up discreetly to the side of the stage, making the captions available for everyone seated in the section but out of the way for those that do not want them. Captions can also benefit people who do not have hearing issues, like people for whom English is a second language. I know my husband (normal hearing) always enjoys having the captions as a backup in case he misses a line of dialogue or two. Open captioning has allowed me to enjoy several theater performances this year that I would have otherwise skipped for fear of disappointment.

Having assistive listening technology in place and in good working order is paramount, but equally important is making sure that the people who need it know that it is available. Assistive listening options should be clearly identified on a venue’s website, at the venue itself, and in ads for each individual production. If we know it is there, we will come!

It is also important that venue personnel know how to utilize the assistive listening equipment and that it is well maintained. Having a portable hearing loop system at the ticket counter is wonderful, but only if staff are trained to use it.

The good news is that there are many options for making cultural events more accessible to people with hearing loss. Now we just need to encourage widespread adoption.

Katie Fanning is Coordinator, Guest Services & Accessibility, at Lincoln Center.

Top image: Assistive Listening Technology in use during a Lincoln Center Tour. Photo by Cait McCarthy

Questions?  The staff at Accessibility at Lincoln Center can be reached at [email protected] or 212.875.5375.  For more information on the range of accommodations available at Lincoln Center, please visit http://www.lincolncenter.org/visit/accessibility.