Assistive Listening Devices (ALDs) are fairly common in America's movie theaters, thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Although significant progress has been made, problems and opportunities remain.
What's the Problem?
Even though the majority of movie theaters now offer ALDs for their customers, very few people with hearing loss use or know about ALD equipment. Unfortunately, many people with hearing aids cannot "couple" their hearing aids to the available ALDs as they have not purchased "FM" or "direct audio input" or "telecoil" options for their hearing aids. Sometimes, people with "compatible" hearing aids don't know how to patch together the ALD and the hearing aids. So the bottom line is, the equipment is usually available to satisfy the letter of the law (the ADA), but the practical knowledge is lacking.
What's the Goal?
The goal is to help hard of hearing people hear. This can be accomplished in movie theaters and accomplishing this goal has many benefits....more hard of hearing people would attend movies, ALDs would become a good investment for movie theaters, hard of hearing people would understand the benefit of ALDs in other venues (houses of worship, restaurants, automobiles, airplanes, meetings etc.), hearing professionals and hard of hearing people would understand, order and use options currently available for hearing aids (FM systems, direct audio input, telecoils etc).
There are several major stakeholders that have interests and potential opportunities in the success of ALDs in movies and other venues too.
A- Movie theater owners and operators
B- Hard of hearing consumers (patients, family and friends)
C- ALD manufacturers and distributors
D- Hearing Aid Manufacturers and Hearing Healthcare Professionals.
E- Movie audio producers and distributors.
A- Movie Theater Owners and Operators
Improving the way movie theaters support customers is important. Although most theaters have ALDs, many theaters don't understand what a good business opportunity they're missing. They don't just fail to promote this wonderful service for their customers; they sometimes seem to go out of their way to hide it! Here are some suggestions for movie theater owners and operators:
- Turn down the volume. That may sound like the wrong thing to do to help people with hearing loss, but it's the right thing to do. Some movies are so loud that it's uncomfortable. Noise is one of the biggest problems people with hearing loss have. If you don't have hearing loss, it's hard to understand that most people with hearing loss are less tolerant of high volume sounds, and loud sounds often sound distorted to ears that are not working normally.
- Put an "ALD" symbol in your newspaper ads. In most cities, your theater ads would stand out if the ads noted "ALDs available." I recommend you use the standard ALD icon of the ear with the slash through it. Your local paper may be willing to write an article about your ALD support, and that too, might bring you additional business.
- Display an ALD symbol beside each ticket seller.
- Make it convenient to obtain the ALD. People don't want to hold up the line where they're buying tickets. I recommend ALDs be available at a convenient desk in the lobby, not a dusty box in the back room! Of course, make sure the ALDs are in good working order with fresh batteries and make sure the staff knows how to operate them.
- Place a poster about available ALDs in the lobby. This is a terrific place to remind your customers you care about them, and you want them want to come back because they hear better in your theater!
- Provide a brochure or card with instructions with each ALD. People who haven't used them before need basic information; how to turn them on, how to adjust the volume, how to confirm they're working, and how to use them with their hearing aids. They need to know where to get help, if there's a problem.
- Turn on the transmitters! The receivers won't work unless the transmitter is on - and this has been a common problem. Please broadcast sound in each theater between and before the movie starts, so your customers can confirm their ALD is on, and they can adjust it to a proper level before the movie starts. There's plenty of time to resolve problems before the movie starts! Between shows, you can broadcast previews, advertisements, or an audio test pattern that only people with an ALD will hear (possibly, spoken information on how to hear best with the ALDs).
- Contact your local SHHH group. They may be able to help you with advertising, publicity, training and consumer awareness.
- Some people have sophisticated hearing aids and ALDs of their own. For them, having "interface" equipment available is a big plus! For example, "neckloops" are telecoil signal receivers that are much larger than the tiny T-coil with the hearing aid. Often, neckloops can be plugged into hearing aids equipped with T-coils -- for even better reception. Many telecoil compatible hearing aids don't ''hear' telecoil signals well, but those same systems work very well with a neckloop.
- Many people have their own FM transmitters used with tiny FM receivers in their hearing aids. If your ALDs have a standard female miniplug on them, users could plug in their most effective user interface; a neckloop, silhouettes, Direct Audio Interface or an FM transmitter.
- Make sure you're buying your ALDs and having them installed by someone who knows about hearing loss ... not just about the ADA and not just about audio. If they can't explain how the ALD will serve people with mild losses through severe losses, then you've got the wrong supplier or contractor. Here's a tip to help you know whether they understand: Ask them about neckloops, DAI, and silhouettes. If they say "You don't need those" or "I don't know," look for someone who knows what they're doing!
- Encourage patrons to bring their own compatible receivers. As more and more people become sophisticated hearing aid and ALD users, they will be able to bring their own receivers and their most effective user interface and simply use your transmitted signal. You'll make these more sophisticated users happy and you won't need to loan them your ALD receiver.
- You might negotiate with your ALD supplier to place a poster in your lobby or an ad in your ALD brochures about the ALD supplier. Perhaps some of them would like to buy their own personal ALDs to use in the theater, with their TV, phones, at meetings, in the car, or in restaurants.
- Offer specials to groups likely to have people with hearing loss. Perhaps a discount for "off nights" if they will try your ALDs. Perhaps a "reception" and introduction to your ALD technology. Groups to consider include; senior centers, retirement communities, assisted living homes and hearing loss support groups like SHHH (find local chapters through www.hearingloss.org).
- Prepare a PowerPoint presentation about your ALD products and services to help customers hear as well as they can. Offer to give your presentation at those same groups ... such meetings are a good place to offer your discount tickets, or to hand out some tickets as door prizes
- Offer a "Hear Better at the Movies" night. Invite people with hearing loss to see a free movie and your presentation about ALDs. Obviously, do this on a night when you wouldn't lose any paying customers.
B. Hard of Hearing Consumers
One important concept, and a key to maximizing "residual hearing" is to realize that hard of hearing consumers, themselves, have a responsibility to do all they can too! It's not just up to others to help - you must help yourself too! Many hard of hearing people have to overcome a history of hearing loss denial, and they must re-focus to educate themselves about how to be good (or great) at having hearing loss. It can be done -- It's a skill and an attitude. Embrace suggestions that make a real difference in your life. These are things YOU (the hard of hearing person) can do; no one else can do them for you. It's not a matter of "the audiologist didn't sell it to me," or the "hearing aid dispenser didn't tell me..." It has a lot to do with acceptance of products and services by the end user (see section B.1 below). Hearing aid manufacturers offer amazing products, and the professionals would be pleased to have you ask for, desire or gratefully accept these products, because let's face it, it helps pay the bills! But if you treat the professionals like used car salesman when they offer to tell you about T-coils, ALDs, directional mics, etc., ...they probably get pretty frustrated! Imagine selling products that few people admit to needing, few people want to use and no one wants to pay for! The professionals and the manufacturers really have the tools and the knowledge available to help you....but you have to allow them to provide it to you!
- You have hearing loss. Deal with it and get over it!
- Go to an audiologist for a full audiometric evaluation, not a hearing screening! It's time to do it right. Get the whole evaluation and review the results in detail with your personal audiologist. Bring your "significant other" to the audiology appointment. You do not hear well! It will be useful for you to have your significant other there to help hear, understand and manage the situation. You should leave the audiologist's office understanding your hearing loss in terms of your degree (normal, mild, moderate, severe, profound) of hearing loss and the type of hearing loss (sensorineural or conductive) and you should have an understanding of pure tones, how well you understand speech, how well you hear in noise, whether your eardrum and middle ear is functioning correctly and whether there are other factors involved. If you need a medical referral you will get one, and if you need assistive listening devices or hearing aids, they will be recommended. Review step one ("You have hearing loss. Deal with it and get over it.). Ask the audiologist to WRITE down the results and recommendations, and to give you a copy to keep, and a copy for your physician.
- See your doctor. A small percentage of hearing loss can be "medically or surgically corrected" and some types of hearing loss can be a sign of other problems that need medical attention to prevent more serious problems.
- Get the hearing aid (and assistive listening device) technology you need to hear your best. Your first consideration should be how to maximize your hearing, not how to get the cheapest or smallest or most "invisible" hearing aid! Remember, even the largest hearing aid is less visible than your hearing loss! People don't really care whether you have hearing loss or not or whether you wear a hearing aid. They do care (and notice) if you aren't hearing well. Pretending to hear when you are indeed missing things, looks pretty silly.
- Learn about the features in hearing aids to couple them with ALDs, to help you hear in difficult situations and with telephones, TVs, computers, and movies. Make sure your next hearing aid includes the right features. You need to know enough about hearing aid features and ALDs. Choose a hearing healthcare provider that can help you choose your hearing aids and ALDs wisely.
- Learn how to use your hearing aid and ALDs and practice strategies that help you hear your best. Hearing aids are not like glasses - you can't just put them on and have perfect hearing. You have to get used to hearing the sounds you've been missing and you'll need to learn to use amplification features to your advantage.
- Join SHHH (www.hearingloss.org) if possible. It's one of the best places to learn the things you need to know. It's only $25 per year to belong to the most influential and informative organization for people with hearing loss.
- When you go to the movies, ask for the ALDs. Get there early so there's time to get the ALD and to get ready to use it. Make sure to thank the theater and tell them you appreciate being able to hear the movie better. If they hear that enough, they'll realize that their ALDs can be good business.
C. ALD Manufacturers, Distributors and Contractors
Most movie theater ALDs are developed by large manufacturers of FM or infrared transmitters and receivers. They may be purchased directly from the manufacturer, or through a distributor. They are frequently installed and maintained by local contractors.
Whether you're an ALD manufacturer, a distributor or a contractor, there are certain things you might consider.
- A good ALD should offer coupling alternatives to meet the needs of your customers. Headsets are nice for mild and moderate losses, but simply won't work for severe and profound and high frequency losses. Headsets should not only be hearing aid compatible (emit a magnetic signal that a telecoil can receive), they should have a standard 3.5 mm female jack so users can install neckloops, DAIs, or Silhouettes. Many customers with hearing loss carry their own personal favorite coupling device. Every theater should have at least a few compatible interfaces and should offer a few neckloops for people that prefer them.
- ALDs should make it easy to tell the battery level. Weak or dead batteries are a major problem. When a customer gets an ALD with a dead battery or one that fails during the show, the customer becomes very annoyed!
- Cosmetics matter! Newer designs that look more like high tech toys are helping make hearing aids and ALDs more of a fashion statement, rather than an embarrassment.
- ALDs should avoid "conspicuous" designs and should NOT draw attention to themselves! Many people still attempt to hide their hearing loss. The last thing they want is something that will draw attention to them and their hearing loss. One popular ALD headset found in movie theaters today, has a RED LIGHT on the top of the headband. HELLO, is anyone home? The red light tells the people who give out the headsets the ALD is on and the battery is working, and that's great. However, if you told me it was designed by someone who NEVER experienced hearing loss, or had to use the product, I'd believe it.
- Make ALDs so amazingly good that even people with normal hearing will want them. Hearing assistance technology will eventually become common for people with normal hearing. Rock stars, sports coaches, and even people on the street are using ear appliances for audio players and telephones. There will be a much broader market for ALDs in the future. The manufacturer that figures out how to design products for the entire market will have a huge advantage. The concept of Universal Design broadens your marketplace and helps the largest number of people.
- If you're a contractor, don't just sell and install equipment ... sell complete solutions. Please offer posters, brochures, training packages and continuing service/support contracts. These may be almost as important to the success of the ALDs as the equipment, itself. You have a strong interest in making the ALDs a success, and these things can help assure success.
- ALD manufacturers could start working with movie producers to build ALD features that allow end users to control the balance between dialog and other sounds via multi-track audio, or perhaps with noise canceling headset technology too.
D. Hearing Aid Manufacturers and Hearing Healthcare Professionals
Hearing aid manufacturers and all healthcare professionals play an important part in this story. So, here are some things they might consider....
- Never advertise hearing aids using verbage such as... "So small no one will know you're wearing them." The message it sends is "You don't want hearing aids." Sorry, but this is just the wrong message to send!
- Never design or sell a hearing aid with automatic features that can't be overridden. It's true that automatic features (such as automatic volume control, noise reduction or telecoils invocation) are great for people who are unable to manage those items themselves. However, savvy hearing aid users (and we're getting more savvy every day) will not buy hearing aids that can't be controlled manually to cope with varying conditions (like coupling with ALDs in movies).
- Please make sure customers who could benefit from telecoils, DAI, ALDs etc., are aware of those features and encourage them to consider them. Too many hearing aid users are missing these benefits, and these benefits make all the difference in the world.
- When you sell hearing aids with telecoils, always demonstrate the T-coil function with a decent ALD. Your customers will be amazed at how great a telecoil can be in noise. If you get them hooked on ALDs, you can be sure they'll investigate DAIs and booted FM systems too!
E. Movie Audio Producers and Distributors
There are a few things you can to help, but the future offers even greater opportunity for you to improve the situation, especially as digital distribution becomes more common.
- Stop hiding the dialog in music and background and sound effects! Any audiologist will tell you that for maximal speech perception, the dialogue needs to be some 30 dB louder than the background noise. Please take heed!!!! Even the best ALDs may not help hard of hearing people when the entire soundtrack is filled with rumble and roar, music and noise, or when dialog is intentionally whispered or mumbled.
- In the future, supply soundtracks for movies in multiple tracks, so individual customers (even customers with good hearing) can choose how to balance the sound effects, music and background noise with the dialog.
- Digital distribution of movies (both picture and audio) will offer opportunities to help people with hearing loss and will require coordination with ALD manufacturers so their receivers can handle the two (or more) audio streams.
- Finally, digital distribution and some cooperation with the receiver industry offers the promise of captioned movies visible only to those who want them. While that's not about ALDs in movies, it's an important thing to prepare for.
The Bottom Line
ALDs offer an opportunity, and they hold promise for all! I like to tell people that there's never a good time to have hearing loss, but there has never been a better time to have hearing loss. If we all work at it, the future will be wonderful, indeed ... and I'll see you at the movies.
Steve Barber has gradually lost most of his hearing over the last 25 years. He's retired from IBM and currently working as a software tester for SAS Inc. Steve has been a volunteer/leader in Self Help for Hard of Hearing People for 14 years and he served as the chairperson for the North Carolina Council for Deaf and Hard of Hearing people during 4 of his 10 year tenure with that council. He built and maintains the NCSHHH web site at www.nchearingloss.org and the Beyond-Hearing web site at www.geocities.com/nc-shhh/bhframe.htm.