Assisted Listening Systems: Not all ADA Compliant Options are Created Equal

When we think about accessibility features in our community the focus is often on physical access as it relates to doors, sidewalks, parking and restrooms. These are extremely important aspects of design to allow for greater participation in community spaces.  However, a much broader lens on the built environment is needed in order to assess the level of functional accessibility in our communities. 

There is so much more to a truly accessible environment than only having accessible parking and entrance into a space.  What good is getting through the door if you cannot participate within the space once you enter?

One aspect of accessibility in community spaces that is often overlooked is accessible features that support individuals with hearing loss. Those who use technology such as hearing aids and cochlear implants, and also those who do not.  Did you know that 1 in 6 Americans over the age of 18 report some level of hearing loss?

Infographic describing the prevalence of hearing loss as compared with the use of assistive technology to support hearing, such as hearing aids.
Source: https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/shareable-images/infographic-hearing-loss-and-hearing-aid-use

So, let’s talk about ADA compliant Assisted Listening Systems and what makes certain options a better choice. 

What is an Assisted Listening System (or Assisted Listening Device)?

According to SECTION 706 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an Assistive Listening System is “A permanent system that reinforces sound transmission within an area from a source to a receiver/transducer to be used by the hearing impaired within that area.” Aka a system that increased the audibility of sound within the built environment. 

Where are they required?

According to SECTION 219 of the ADA these systems are required  “in places of public assembly where audible communications is integral to use of the space…”

Resources on ADA requirements:

I will challenge Section 219 with this question:

Where in public space is communication NOT integral to the successful use of the space? 

  • Elevators, 
  • courthouses, 
  • DMV, 
  • public transit, 
  • conference centers, 
  • retail outlets, 
  • grocery stores, 
  • office buildings, 
  • community theaters, 
  • medical offices, 
  • restaurants, 
  • movie theaters, 
  • hotels, 
  • schools…

In which of these places is the ability to communicate (give and receive information) not integral to its use?

This is also a matter of safety within the spaces as well. 

As I have said a number of times, compliance does not necessarily equate to accessibility.

As such, not all compliant Assisted Listening Systems are created equal.

What are the ADA compliant Assisted Listening Systems?

  1. Personal FM/IR system

2. Hearing Loop (Induction) System

A hearing loop (sometimes called an audio induction loop) is a special type of sound system for use by people with hearing aids. The hearing loop provides a magnetic, wireless signal that is picked up by the hearing aid when it is set to ‘T’ (Telecoil) setting.
The hearing loop consists of a microphone to pick up the spoken word; an amplifier which processes the signal which is then sent through the final piece; the loop cable, a wire placed around the perimeter of a specific area i.e. a meeting room, a church, a service counter etc to act as an antenna that radiates the magnetic signal to the hearing aid.
Source: https://www.hearinglink.org/living/loops-equipment/hearing-loops/what-is-a-hearing-loop/

Why is the hearing loop the most accessible Assisted Listening System option?

Ultimately, because it creates the best listening experience for the users. 

The orange line marked by diamonds represents how well people were able to hear when in a “looped” environment.  The red line marked by squares represents how well people were able to hear in a non-looped environment.  
Source: Hearing Loss Association

Let’s explore that a little. 

How do hearing loop systems make our communities more accessible?

Our interactions within the environments of our communities are complex and mostly unpredictable.

If all public use spaces and services (from ATMs, ticket counters and sports arenas to libraries, classrooms, public transit and office buildings) were equipped with induction systems –

  • Our community members would experience more meaningful interactions and increased safety.
  • More community members would be able to appreciate available services and resources in their community. 
  • Educational environments would be able to enhance the learning experiences for students and support a more diverse educator pool.

Let’s think beyond the large venue social experiences – like concert halls, sports arenas, movie or live theater – to some environments where integral information is currently inaccessible to many. 

  • If public transit systems were equipped with induction technology, individuals with hearing aids/cochlear implants would not miss important announcements.
  • If elevators were equipped with induction technology, general and emergency announcements would be received by all.
  • If bank teller stations were equipped with induction systems bank employees would better be able to serve bank customers with hearing loss by ensuring bank customers accurately received transaction information; AND bank customers could be more confident in their ability to receive bank services.
  • If customer service counters were equipped with induction systems customers could be confident in their ability to obtain accurate information AND the business would be better able to serve and support all their customers.

Let’s bring it all together by considering two possible outcomes of the same scenario. 

Scenario: You take your mother or grandmother, who wears hearing aids, to fulfill a bucket list item at the local live theater to see the Rockettes for her birthday.   

Outcome 1: The theater has a personal FM system as their ADA compliant Assisted Listening System.

Outcome 2: The theater has a Hearing Loop (induction) system as the ADA compliant Assisted Listening System

Which experience would you prefer?

So far, we have generally focused on those community members who use Assistive Technology to enhance their ability to hear – namely a hearing aid or cochlear implant.

But what about the members of our communities who experience hearing loss not at a level to require hearing aids?

Environments with lots of background noise make actively engaging in events or conversation difficult for those in this situation.  In a public venue that is required to have an assisted listening system, what is typically available is the personal FM or personal IR system (as discussed above). And as we just explored, there is a good chance that the user experience with these systems will not be optimized. 

I recently became aware of the OTOjoy loop buds which have a built-in receiver, similar to those available in hearing aids or cochlear implants, that allows it to connect to an induction system (aka hearing loop system).

These are a great example of a product that incorporates Universal Design due to the benefits across users, situations and environments.  If you visit this link (https://loopbuds.com) and scroll down you can experience a simulation of the difference in information reception when using no system and using the Loop Buds (aka a hearing loop). This enhances the user experience across many environments – public venues, transportation, classrooms, coffee shop and more.

For a look at the importance of inclusive design and having truly accessible, inclusive design features listen to this college student describe their experiences on campus. 

Assistology is your resource and expertise to help identify solutions that remove barriers to participation.  Talk to me about how we can help you or your business go beyond compliance for the best human experience in our community spaces.

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