Imagine seeing an airplane flying into the World Trade Center on a TV set with the sound turned off, or live shots of a fire in your neighborhood – again with no sound. That could be upsetting to say the least. Or, you could be in a noisy bar with a basketball game on the TV but, because of a hearing disability and the background noise from excited bar patrons, you can’t hear the play-by-play when the game is stopped for some reason.
That’s what many with a hearing disability – especially the deaf – contend with all the time. Whether deaf of hard of hearing, it leaves us feeling like second-class citizens when we’re out in public. Whether in a doctor’s waiting room, a restaurant, bar or some other place where TV sets are intended to provide entertainment or information for those present, we’re neither entertained nor informed.
We’re, instead, frustrated. We’re not being provided with the same consideration and service as others in the room. You would think that at least medical offices and hospitals would be sensitive to the special needs of those with a hearing disability but, alas, most are not.
For the hard of hearing, hearing aids won’t solve the problem – they’re really only effective with speech coming from within 6 feet or so. Hearing aids or turning up the volume obviously won’t help the deaf. Sometimes even people with so called “normal” hearing have difficulty hearing the TV in a public setting either because the volume is set too low or there’s too much background noise. For some of them it could also be because they are one of the 48 million in this country with a measureable hearing loss – possibly undiagnosed or unaccepted. Statistics show many with hearing loss are in denial and wait up to 10 years after needing hearing aids before getting them.
That’s why the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that the captions be turned on in situations like those mentioned above if you request it. Such a request, however, can be both problematic and frustrating. You may be told, “I’m not allowed to change the settings on the TV” or, “I don’t know how to do that.” Then there’s, “I can’t find the remote” or simply, “No – our customers don’t like that.” The ADA didn’t create “caption police,” and filing a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department is not going to get the sound turned on right then and there – when it’s really needed. This leaves those of us with a hearing disability, again, feeling like second-class citizens and, at times, it could put us in danger.
For folks here in Albuquerque – the deaf, the hard of hearing, and even those with good hearing – the city council has addressed this problem with the new Closed Captioning Ordinance. It basically requires that the captions always be turned on during normal business hours if the TV is turned on in a location open to the public. The city’s Office of Civil Rights will enforce the ordinance and, for those places that might not want to have the captions “always on,” the alternative of a fine of up to $500 for each complaint from a patron that the ordinance was violated should encourage compliance. By enacting this ordinance, Albuquerque has joined Seattle, San Francisco, several other progressive cities and the entire state of New York in ensuring the hard of hearing in those locales will have complete access to public TVs.
Thank you City Councilors Cynthia Borrego and Klarissa Peña for taking this matter to their colleagues on the council, to all of them for addressing this problem and giving those of us with hearing loss first class status, and Mayor Tim Keller for signing the ordinance.
Stephen O. Frazier is a hearing loss support specialist.