30 years ago this week, George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, which had been passed by a bipartisan Congress. Change for people with visible disabilities came quickly. Curb cuts became the norm, and allowed people in wheelchairs to cross the street. Wheelchair ramps aided not just wheelchair users but people with strollers or walkers. Braille became standard on public signage. Every governor and mayor had an ASL interpreter at his or her side when speaking in public.
Less easily or quickly addressed was the invisible disability of hearing loss. It is thanks to Rocky Stone, the founder of the Hearing Loss Association of America (then called SHHH), that hearing loss was included in the list of disabilities covered. One essential accommodation — in my opinion the most important for people with hearing loss — was the development of CART captioning. This photo shows one of my early experiences with it, speaking to a hearing-loss group.
On the 20th anniversary of the ADA, ten long years ago, I had recently quit my much loved job as an editor at The New York Times. I couldn’t hear well enough to manage the many meetings and phone calls and other requirements of the job. I could have asked to be transferred to a position which would not have required so much public and workplace interaction, but I was worn out from many years of trying to keep up. The obstacles seemed insurmountable. The technology was not very good.
Today, ten years later, the accommodations that would have made the workplace accessible to me exist, and I would have had the confidence and determination to ask for them and to use them.
I would have asked for CART captioning in all company-wide meetings. I would have asked for a conference room in our department to be looped, and for my department’s meetings to be held in that room. I would have asked for looping for the larger conference room, where Page One and other meetings were held. I would have asked for a captioned telephone. I would have used my own smart phone for calls, using the captioning app Innocaption+. I would have used speech to text captioning in smaller groups: Otter for the iPhone, Google Transcribe for an Android. I would have asked people – probably over and over and over again – to look at me when they speak, not to talk over each other, to repeat key phrases if I miss them or to paraphrase them.
Other benefits for people with hearing loss that stem from the passage of the ADA involve FCC requirements for cell phones and landlines to be compatible with hearing aids. Movies are captioned (usually via a device you ask for at the theater), television is captioned. The governor or mayor will include a CART captioner as well as the ASL interpreter for public events. Hearing loops allow people to hear in public spaces simply by changing the program on a hearing aid. This is really just a smidgen of the changes that have come about. Readers, please suggest others that have been meaningful to you.
In my term as president of the New York City chapter of HLAA, I was part of groups advocating for accommodations in the public and private spectrum. One of my proudest moments was the signing in 2016 of two bills by Mayor Bill De Blasio that advanced accommodations for people with disabilities. These in fact served people with hearing loss but also all New Yorkers, as many accommodations do. The first required all city agencies to have a disability-services facilitator on staff and to publicize the name of the person and contact information. The second required that meetings and other events must include information about accessibility on the announcement or invitation. (Prior to this bill, a person with hearing loss might go to an event that had been advertised as hearing accessible and find only an ASL interpreter.)
The picture shows some of the people who made those changes happen.
The following year the mayor signed a another bill, requiring installation of hearing loops in all new or renovated city buildings with a base cost of $1 million. And shortly after that, the historic landmarked City Council Chamber in City Hall was looped.
The fight for accommodations is in no way over, but it’s being waged. The pandemic has revealed the essential need for transparent masks in medical settings. Another of our chapter members, Toni Iacolucci, is working with New York City’s massive hospital system to make hearing accommodation available.
In 2016, at the New York Yankees’ annual Disability Awareness Night, our chapter received an award from the Mayor for our contributions to a more accessible New York.
We have a long way to go in getting full accommodation for people with hearing loss. But the ADA gives us the legal means to continue our fight. Perhaps as important, the ADA has raised awareness of discrimination against people with disabilities and their rights for equal accommodation. Let’s hope by the 40th anniversary we won’t have to be working so hard to provide access to all people, no matter how severe their disability is, or how invisible it is. Thanks to HLAA for leading the way.