No Wheelchair Ramp for the Deaf

Getting hearing access for those who are deaf or hard of hearing is a little more complicated.

No Wheelchair for the Deaf

One accommodation for the hard of hearing is an American Sign Language interpreter. But only a small minority of those who need it, use it. — Getty Images



Trying to get accommodations for those of us who are hard of hearing or deaf can be a long, tough slog.

Two years ago, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit against shipping giant FedEx Ground, charging it with discriminating against its deaf and hard-of-hearing employees and job applicants for years.

The EEOC alleged that the company violated federal law by failing to provide needed accommodations, such as closed-caption training videos, scanners that vibrate instead of beep, flashing safety lights and American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation.

FedEx filed a motion to dismiss the suit, but this year a federal judge denied the motion. The case is still under litigation.

All of which brings me to the sticky issue of accommodations — namely, that no one type works for all. There is no wheelchair ramp equivalent when it comes to hearing loss.

Although the FedEx case involves the specific needs of a particular workplace, the problems of hearing access challenge all of us and make asking for hearing access — even for something as simple as a better-equipped lecture hall — complicated. Which access do you ask for?

One accommodation that is routinely offered is an ASL interpreter. The problem is that only a small minority of those with hearing loss (less than 5 percent) use ASL. It’s no more helpful to most than an interpreter speaking Hungarian would be.

Among the most widely used accommodations, found in theaters, houses of worship and public gathering places, are infrared or FM headsets. The person with hearing loss borrows a headset from the venue. Sound, which travels through the regular sound system and then wirelessly to the headset, is amplified. Sometimes these systems work well. More often they are helpful to those with milder losses but not for anyone else. They also work only as well as the microphone. It the microphone is badly positioned, the headsets won’t deliver clear sound.

The technology that gets people most excited is induction looping. (Here’s a short video about it.) This, too, works through the venue’s regular sound system, and the sound quality is often excellent. It consists of a wire run around the perimeter of a room that transmits a signal, again wirelessly, to the audience member’s own hearing aid or cochlear implant, set to the telecoil setting. If a hearing aid does not have a telecoil, or the user doesn’t have hearing aids, headsets similar to those used for FM devices can be worn. Sometimes hearing people use them, just to hear better.

For some, the best option is captioning. This can be open captioning on a shared screen, similar to the captions on your television or subtitles on a movie. Or it can be closed captioning, sent to your personal device (an iPhone or iPad) or one provided by a theater. Generally this kind of captioning, called CART, which I described in some detail a few months ago, is live.

Scripts can also be scanned or typed into a new device being tested by Globetitles. It sends prescreened captions to personal devices, including computer and television screens, tablets and smartphones. The captions appear as red type on a black background, so they don’t bother others. You can see a sample by clicking on the Globetitles link.

Unfortunately, no single system fits all needs. Some think captioning serves the largest number of people. Others like looping because you don’t have to do anything except change the program on your hearing aid. Live captioning could be adapted to the kind of Sony glasses used in Regal Cinemas, or something like Google Glass could put captions right before your eyes.

Most venues will probably continue to offer one form of listening assistance (or none). But if that assistance does not serve a person with a hearing disability when another type of assistance would, that person can bring a lawsuit under the ADA.

As Lise Hamlin, the Hearing Loss of America Association’s director of public policy and state development, emailed me in a discussion about accessibility: “You might be able to make a case for both a listening system and captioning under the ADA. The relevant phrase is ‘effective communication.’ The key is providing effective communication to each person who needs it. If even one person is denied effective communication, they can file a claim.”

Most of us don’t want to get involved in a lengthy lawsuit — we just want to understand the play or the sermon or the mayor’s announcement or the community meeting or the visiting candidate. Is that so much to ask?

This post first appeared on AARP Health on August 10, 2016.

Katherine Bouton is the author of “Living Better With Hearing Loss: A Guide to Health, Happiness, Love, Sex, Work, Friends … and Hearing Aids,” and a memoir, “Shouting Won’t Help: Why I — and 5o Million Other Americans — Can’t Hear You”. Both available on


12 thoughts on “No Wheelchair Ramp for the Deaf

  1. Something that I have found very helpful are “glasses” provided by some movie theaters that make it possible to view closed captions on the screen. My family is thrilled not to be treated with a constant stream of “I didn’t catch that!” and I am thrilled not to miss all the one-liners that make so many movies fun. It also enables me to silence all the painfully loud sound effects.


    • Those glasses are helpful to many. They are found in Regal Cinemas. Sony has a cupholder kind of caption device, which you can position so that you can see the screen and read the captions at the same time. We should all ask for these devices whenever we go to the movies. The theaters need to know that we are using them


  2. Hi Katherine,

    I have enjoyed reading your blog for some time. Also, through Facebook, I noted that we are both friends with Wendy Kassel. Small world!

    I have used hearing aids since age 34 for familial otosclerosis (nerve-based). I fly a lot, and on last night’s (very delayed) flight from Newark to SFO, I couldn’t really hear the pilot’s announcements. This is a common problem for me. Luckily there was one very nice flight attendant who came over to ask me whether I had heard each one, after I asked him to tell me what the pilot had said the first time. But usually that does not happen.

    I noticed that the entertainment screen interrupts itself for pilot announcements. Now that speech recognition is pretty good, I wonder whether we should push for some sort of automated captioning of flight announcements on the entertainment screens when there is a pilot or other interrupting announcement. Do you have any idea whether the technology is good enough to support this?

    Keep up your good work! I always refer my friends who newly need hearing aids (this is frequent now that I’m older) to your blog as an additional source of info.

    Best, Julie Kaufman

    On Fri, Aug 12, 2016 at 9:39 AM, Katherine Bouton wrote:

    > Katherine Bouton posted: ” Getting hearing access for those who are deaf > or hard of hearing is a little more complicated. One accommodation for the > hard of hearing is an American Sign Language interpreter. But only a small > minority of those who need it, use it. — Get” >


  3. The language that is used for people with hearing loss is just so confusing – Hard of hearing people rarely call themselves deaf, and RARELY if EVER use ASL (American Sign Language) – only those who identify as Deaf (refers to those who embrace the cultural norms, beliefs, and values of the Deaf Community) use ASL – a minute percentage-some estimate as low as .9%* (or less than 1 out of 100) of all those with hearing loss and that number is likely going down now that most children identified as deaf of severely hard of hearing and born to hearing parents are implanted with life changing and language growth facilitating CIs.

    My surveys among hundreds of hearing aid and CI using adults (who identify themselves as having moderate, severe or profound hearing loss) suggest that about 3-5% of people in that category do not benefit from assistive listening technology that provide clearer sound (such as hearing loops), they need access to captions/text. So…if one estimates that these survey’s did not include those with mild-to-moderate hearing loss** (who constitute 75% of ALL people with hearing loss) I dare to suggest that less than 1% of those with hearing loss need more than access to pristine sound that hearing loops provide such as captions.

    Captioned movies of course benefit people like myself – a mature adult (who is experiencing a slight change in hearing and who has auditory processing issues because I grew up speaking Dutch): for those who speak ESL (English as a second language) captions are invaluable – how else can I understand what they say on “Downton Abby?”

    Email me for the references


    • You may be right about those figures but many my friends and colleagues in the Hearing Loss Association of America — and outside of it as well — need captions in addition to loops or other listening systems. In my opinion we’ve got to always offer a caption option along with assistive listening systems. GlobeTitles is a very good solution. It may not be ready for the big time yet, but it’s a low cost alternative to some of the captioning systems now used in theaters, and requires no devices other than the user’s own smart phone or tablet. GlobeTitles will never replace CART for transmitting live conversation, but the system is good for scripted performances. And of course even if we rely on captions, we love actually hearing voices thanks to a loop.


  4. Is this a typo?

    “One accommodation for the hard of hearing is an American Sign Language interpreter. But only a small minority of those who need it, use it.”

    I’m wondering if this should actually say something like this— One accommodation for the hard of hearing is an American Sign Language interpreter which is used by a minority of people with hearing loss who are Deaf. The majority of people with hearing loss do not know sign language.


  5. There is a reason “Hard of hearing people rarely call themselves deaf…” and that is because of the gross negative implications average people and even health care professionals foolishly ascribe to someone viewed as “Deaf” — such as idiocy or being child-like or requiring simple-minded phrasing shouted at us. I was warned about this by hearing impaired friends when first experiencing serious hearing loss as a middle-aged adult. I found it hard to believe at the time but experience has proven them correct.

    During a period when I needed regular medical care at a hospital and clinic, which are often incredibly noisy settings, I found it very difficult to hear many among the health care personnel, who apparently have no clue about hearing loss and resort to the tactics described above when informed. I began presenting an index card boldly printed with the words: “I AM DEAF. PLEASE DO NOT SHOUT AT ME” — accompanied by a miniature yellow legal pad upon which they could write. It is a tedious means of communication, yet saved me a lot of unnecessary aggravation. And for the few among them that had big booming voices, we could dispense with the tablet.

    As for theater events and the like, I agree that captions are essential. Oddly, I have found that seeing the word also enables hearing it clearly, whereas without captions about half of dialogue would be a muddle.

    For those venues without caption systems, I have sometimes asked to be sent a copy of the script. Most theater companies have their scripts on computer and can easily send as an attachment to email. Reading before attending the performance is very helpful and sometimes I print out the script to take along just in case, although usefulness at the venue is entirely dependent on lighting. Still, it helps, as one can consult the script during intermission to clarify some bit missed or prep for the next act.

    btw, I have long been a fan of foreign films so have been reading captions in movies all my life. Now paying attention to captions on DVDs of regular films and TV programs as well has demonstrated that apparently the captions are often done by people who have no clue as to the content of the show or may have hearing problems of their own. There are often lots of incorrect words, wrong word forms, altered phrasing of dialogue or incomplete sentences, which sometimes create confusion about what is going on in the program. There needs to be greater emphasis on doing captioning properly.


    • Many interesting thoughts here. The hospital situation is critical. All hospitals should have a CART captioning operator on hand or at the very least a Pocket Talker. The information you get is important and has to be delivered clearly.


  6. Access is actually very simple. All of the access available falls into three categories. Hearing Access & Innovations calls this, the three-prong approach to reach the full spectrum of hearing loss. All three types of access should be available.

    3-Qualified Interpretation

    The environment dictates the specific access appropriate for each category.

    I vehemently disagree with Lise Hamlin’s statement, “You might be able to make a case for both a listening system and captioning under the ADA.” The National Park Service, a federal agency recommends the above three types of access: A person who cannot hear in my opinion would not have effective access by having an assistive listening system (ALS) or qualified interpretation if they don’t know ASL. Further, the ADA specifically mentions ALSs.

    HLAA unlike NAD refuses to litigate. By not litigating, HLAA in my opinion, has prevented a clear definition of the term, effective access. Terms are defined by legislation and case law. We have the legislation and we need sufficient case law. HLAA should help to ensure people with hearing loss have the effective access they need and the ADA mandates 26 years after its’s enactment. It is time for HLAA to lead. Leaders lead…


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