In 2018 when Proctors replaced the 2,700 seats in its main theater, hearing loop technology was installed throughout the house. This makes it possible anyone with an up-to-date hearing aid to flip a switch on their device, which is usually controlled by an app on their cellphone. This activates a built-in receiver, known as a telecoil, which in turn accesses an audio feed directly from the theater’s amplification system. Sound quality dramatically improves and gone is the interference of ambient noise. Listeners are hearing what the onstage microphones are picking up.
Going to the theater became a new experience for Pam Fisher when she took her daughter to see “Frozen” at Proctors last November. “It was honestly one of the best nights of my life,” says Fisher, who has had degenerative hearing loss since age 9. “I didn’t have to do anything different, like reserve something or fill out a form. I just showed up, sat down and enjoyed it. And for the first time in my life I could understand the lyrics.”
Hearing loop technology has been around for about 20 years and is growing in popularity for use in auditoriums and churches, at service counters and in homes. At least half a dozen Broadway houses have it and it’s installed at kiosks in 600 subway stations in New York. The cost varies according to the scale of the project. A loop in the room where you watch TV would be in the range of $300 to $500, while installation in a large performance space could be $75,000 to $150,000.
Proctors is the local gold standard. It has retrofitted the main stage and the GE Theater and integrated loops into the construction of the Addy in Schenectady, the new home of Capital Rep in Albany, and Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs. Sometimes only a few rows in a theater will have loop access, but Proctors makes it available in every seat.
“As we continually look to improve our spaces and improve our services for audience members, it’s clear that the technology of the magnetic induction loop is a must-have for our facilities. Folks love it!” says Philip Morris, CEO of Proctors Collaborative.
Hearing accessibility was mandated in 1990 with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In theaters, the most frequent accommodation for the hearing impaired are headsets or ear buds. Drawbacks with these start with the inconvenience. Users must go to a special location in the lobby, where they’re often asked to leave an ID, and then return to that desk after the performance. There’s also the question of sanitation.
An update to ADA standards in 2010 called for new and renovated venues to provide at least 25 percent of listening devices that are hearing aid compatible, meaning listeners don’t have to remove their personal devices. This makes loop technology an ideal choice, since it interfaces with the t-coil in a hearing aid. While there can be a sizable initial investment, numerous people can utilize it without additional expense.
According to the Hearing Loss Association of America (the source for much of the information in this article), 81 percent of standard sized hearing aids either come with t-coils or offer t-coils as an option, while all cochlear implants have t-coils.
The national chairperson of the Hearing Loss Association is Richard Einhorn, a composer whose music has been performed frequently in the Capital Region. There’s also an Albany chapter of the association and many of its members are music lovers.
“We started in 1983. This was pre-internet and many of us walked around for years not having much communication with other people due to our disability,” says Janet Mattox. “Our meetings are mostly educational. People have lots of questions about technology.”
Mattox began losing her hearing as a teen and got her first hearing aids at age 24. She received cochlear implants in 2016 and 2018 and says they’re “phenomenal.” She’s also grateful for the arrival of the hearing loops.
At the Unitarian Universalist Society of Schenectady, one of a handful of local churches with the technology, Mattox used to attend a folk music series. In the old days, she’d do alright listening to the songs, but when the musicians spoke to the audience she was shut out. That all changed. “Now I can hear the lyrics as well as the chit-chat between sets, which is all part of the show,” she says. “People laugh and I can enjoy it with them.”
Mattox has recently completed a third year of serving as an advisor to the Theater Development Fund, a Manhattan nonprofit that is best known for running the TKTS booth in Times Square. In conjunction with the New York State Council on the Arts, TDF also administers small grants for accessibility projects. As a community member Mattox reads and scores a few dozen hearing related applications each year. She says most of the funding requests are for American Sign Language interpreters but often overlooked are opportunities to help those who are hard of hearing. “Most hard of hearing aren’t part of ASL, it’s not part of our lives. It’s great for people who are deaf, but not for the rest of us,” she says.
Another leader of the Albany Hearing Loss chapter is Don Porter. Music has always been a part of his life, starting with piano lessons in elementary school and continuing with membership in the high school band. He and his wife have been ushers at SPAC for 20 seasons and he’s currently studying the flute.
Porter received his first hearing aid immediately after tests showed hearing loss. That was 18 years ago. “Glasses can correct vision but hearing aids don’t correct hearing,” he says.
Like many aficionados of live music during the coronavirus lockdown, Porter has turned to the web. Recently he found himself somehow not connecting to a streamed performance by singer/songwriter Jim Scott. “I couldn’t understand the music, couldn’t hear what they were doing. I turned on the sound through my loop and all of a sudden I could follow the performance and it was marvelous,” he says.
Enthusiasm for loop technology runs high. Pam Fisher, who enjoyed “Frozen” possibly more than her little girl did, spent six months last year leading a campaign that raised $17,000 to install a loop in the Charles R. Wood Theater in Glens Falls. Fisher is a board member of the Adirondack Theater Festival, which takes place at the Wood, and the organization participated in the money-raising effort.
Word spread quickly around the small city and soon the Crandall Public Library was approached by a donor who underwrote a loop in one its community spaces. “We went from zero loops north of Saratoga to two being installed in one week,” says Fisher.