How to use an Assistive Listening System at the Theater
By Janice Lintz Schacter
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
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),
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
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