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How to use an Assistive Listening System at the Theater

How to use an Assistive Listening System at the Theater

By Janice Lintz Schacter

April 2011

The theater is a rich and enjoyable experience, yet it can be a frustrating and stress-producing nightmare if you cannot understand what is happening. Who wants to attend an entertaining event if you may not be able to enjoy the show? The solution is understanding your hearing loss needs and proper preparation.

Can you use an assistive listening system?

If you have some residual hearing, you may be able to use an assistive listening system (ALS) Three systems are currently available: radio frequency (FM), infrared light (IR) and Induction loop. The signal arrives through a receiver, which may be either an Assistive Listening Device (ALD) or a telecoil (also called a T-coil.) in a hearing aid or cochlear implant. ALDs enable theatergoers to receive the sound directly from the sound source to their ear, which eliminates the negative effects of distance, noise and reverberation on sound clarity. Volume can also be increased.

Does the theater have an assistive listening system?

In the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) requires that all places of public accommodation with fixed seating that either accommodate at least 50 people or have an audio amplification system (or both) must provide an assistive listening system (ALS). If the theater does not have an ALS, you can ask them to install one. If they refuse, file a complaint through the US Department of Justice (http://www.ada. gov/t3compfm.htm) or the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights http://www. state.nj.us/lps/dcr/index.html. Change will only occur if complaints are filed.

What type of ALS does the theater have?

The three types of ALS mentioned above are: FM – works via a radio frequency; Infrared – works via a beam of invisible light; Induction loop – works via an electromagnetic signal.

Different locations have different systems for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to environmental concerns, privacy issues, portability, the size of the space, construction materials (for instance, metalwork can absorb or distort magnetic fields), the impact of installing the system in the space, and cost.

What type of ALD receiver should I use?

The type of receiver used (if any) depends on the type of ALS used, whether your hearing aid or cochlear implant has a T-coil, and the degree of your hearing loss.

What type of ALS is used?

Look on the theater’s Web site for this information, and you may have to call. [Ed. Various symbols may be used to indicate the presence of an assistive listening system.]

Unlike FM and infrared systems, induction loops are hearing aid compatible, meaning people with T-coil equipped hearing aids or cochlear implants can receive the sound signal directly via their T-coil, maximizing the customized output of their hearing aid or cochlear implant, and no receiver is needed. Consider adding a T-coil if you do not have one. T-coils can be added to your hearing aid for less than $100, which is substantially less than replacing your hearing aids.

An FM radio or infrared system requires a receiver for use, whether or not you have a T-coil. There are different ways to use a receiver: ear bud headset, a headset that fits over your ears, or (for those with Tcoils), neck loops.

Can you remove your hearing aid and still hear via the receiver?

Then you can use an ear bud that fits directly into the ear (as well as any type of headset). Many people are uncomfortable inserting something in their ear that has already been inserted in another person’s ear even when it has been cleaned.

Are you unable to remove your hearing aid to use the receiver and lack a T-coil in your hearing aid or cochlear implant?

You can use Walkman style headsets that plug into the jack on the receiver. However, headsets typically do not work for people who wear behind-the-ear (BTE) hearing aids or for some people who have more than a mild hearing loss, because the sound output is likely to be insufficient. In addition, the design of some headsets doesn’t confine the sound to the listeners’ ears, so other people nearby could be disturbed. That is why a neck loop (see below.) should be used if you have a T-coil. It is thoughtless to blast the volume because you need a neck loop and do not have a T-coil. Many theaters will justifiably ask you to remove the headset because you are disturbing others. Consider having a T-coil added to your hearing aid or cochlear implant if you fall into this category.

Do you have a T-coil in your hearing aid or cochlear implant?

A neck loop (which is a small induction loop) can be plugged into the jack of an FM or infrared receiver to send the signal to your T-coil; you do not need a headset. The receiver must have a jack for plugging in the neck loop; most one-piece headsets do not have such jacks. Neck loops allow the person’s own hearing aids or cochlear implant to regulate the volume.

What receivers and auxiliary equipment does the theater have?

It is important to determine whether the theater has the equipment you need. Reserving it ahead of time will also ensure that it works and it is waiting for you. Sound Associates (212-757-5679) provides ALS for many Broadway theaters, but contact your theater in advance so that you will not be disappointed. Bring your own if the theater does not have the ALD you need.

Theaters should have headsets and neck loops on hand. Many theaters only offer ear buds because they cost substantially less; but ear buds may not provide effective communication under the ADA, since they require users to remove their hearing aids.

File a complaint, as mentioned above, if the theater does not offer ALDs and is unwilling to obtain them. The number and types of devices required are detailed in the ADA Accessibility Guidelines (“ADAAG”), can be found at www. access-board.gov.