A few weeks ago, I had an amazing experience, one that most people take for granted but that for more and more of us in the baby-boom demographic is becoming impossible. I sat in a large auditorium and listened to — and heard — a speaker on a podium. In fact, I listened to many speakers over the course of a two-day weekend, and I heard every word.
About 48 million Americans have hearing loss, and more than half of them are younger than 55. Most don't wear hearing aids — not because they don't need them but because they buy into the stigma that hearing loss is for the elderly. Even with hearing aids — and this is one of the best-kept secrets of the hearing- aid industry — you may need even more help to hear a lecture, a sermon or a play.
There's an easy solution, but it has been little embraced in the U.S.: hearing loops.
Looping, for those who don't know, is a technology that involves installing a wire around the periphery of a room or between rows of seats. The speaker uses an ordinary microphone that amplifies his or her voice for the hearing audience and transmits it directly to a listener's hearing aid, specially equipped headphones or cochlear implant. All extraneous sound is cut out. Hearing aids are ordinarily effective only up to six feet away. But with the hearing loop the voice is as clear as if the speaker were four feet in front of you — clearer, perhaps, because of the elimination of background noise.
In the past few years, as my hearing declined, I stopped going to lectures, to the theater, to movies and to readings. I couldn't hear them. But in Eastbourne, England, last month, all that changed. The event was the third International Hearing Loop Conference. I had been invited to attend as an observer.
I knew about the technology. The New York Times ran a celebratory article explaining it in 2011. But I had only rare experiences with it, mostly at hearing-loss conferences. For the most part, I and others like me rely on a live-captioning system called Communication Access Real-Time Translation, or CART, in order to follow a speaker at public events. CART, alas, is rarely offered. And looping has until now been largely nonexistent, at least in New York.
A small but determined group of New Yorkers has been successful in getting looping installed in various places of worship, at information booths in museums, in some stores (such as Apple's SoHo store) and in the ordering line at Shake Shack. You can access a list of looped venues by searching “audio loops in the New York metropolitan area.”
Looping is planned for New York taxis, as part of the Taxi of Tomorrow initiative, but I'll believe it when I see it. A judge recently blocked a plan for an exclusive contract with Nissan Motor Co. for a uniform fleet, putting the program in jeopardy.
In other words, hearing loops are few and far between in our city, and they're geared mostly to tourists. There are no loops at the Celeste Bartos Forum, a major lecture hall. Until now (more about this later) there have been no loops at Broadway and off-Broadway theaters. There is no looping at the many readings that are held every night in New York in bookstores and at places such as the 92nd Street Y. Loops in movie theaters or in university lecture halls are rare.
Once you mic the performers — standard practice on Broadway, at lectures, at readings — it's a small step to looping the space, making the experience available to the many thousands of New Yorkers who would be able to hear the performance simply by flicking a switch on their hearing aids.
One piece of good news is that the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway recently installed a hearing loop. The minute I heard this, I bought tickets for “Romeo and Juliet” starring Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad. The bad news is that there's no way the average consumer would know this. There's no indication that the show is looped on the theater's website, on Ticketmaster, on Broadway.com or at the Times' website. The Times listings indicate which theaters have “hearing assistance,” but this generally refers to infrared headphones that don't work for people who need their hearing aids or for people with cochlear implants. They often don't work, period — the batteries run out, the equipment is old.
If people don't know the loops exist, they won't go to the theater or other venues that offer them. If they don't go, the loop won't be taken advantage of. The theater will say that the loop isn't being used, and this will deter other theaters from installing them. It's a vicious circle. A friend of mine went to a performance of “Romeo and Juliet” last week and asked about looping. The usher's response: “What's looping?”
Looping isn't the answer for everyone. The deaf, for instance, can't take advantage of hearing loops unless they wear hearing aids. But it is the answer for thousands of us who want to participate in the cultural life of our city. Just when we're old enough to have the free time and income to take advantage of the huge array of offerings in New York, we're likely no longer able to hear them.
Looping is also beneficial for our endangered art institutions. For certain kinds of culture — lectures, readings, classical music concerts, theater — the audiences tend to be made up of baby boomers and older. Think how arts programs would profit if those millions with hearing loss had access to programs now denied them.
— Katherine Bouton, a former senior editor at the New York Times, is the author of “Shouting Won't Help: Why I — and 50 Million Other Americans — Can't Hear You.”