By Cheri Perazzoli
The Americans with Disabilities (ADA) law was passed 32 years ago this week with the goal of removing barriers to the physical environment ending the ableism and stigmas that block people with disabilities from participating equally. Back then, I wondered how the ADA might help bring about hearing-friendly communities and change the lives of millions of people with hearing loss. Today, I’m looking back at our long and winding advocacy journey.
Over a decade ago, I glimpsed what a hearing-friendly could be when I discovered the joy of hearing loops while on vacation in Ireland. I found hearing loops everywhere in the UK: train stations, railcars, tour buses, museums, theaters, ticket windows, and retail counters. Signs were posted so people knew to use the loop, and we were even shown how to use the loop. My communication barriers had been eliminated! I found myself in a place that acknowledged my hearing disability and created a culture where I could participate. Empowered by my newfound independence, I felt the shame and stigma fading away. I envisioned all kinds of opportunities if we had hearing-friendly communities here in the US. If the UK could do it, surely we could do the same here.
With that dream in my heart, I founded Let’s Loop Seattle in 2012. I drew inspiration from national Get in the Hearing Loop efforts such as Dr. David Myers’s Loop America, and from the advocacy work of other local HLAA chapters who’d come before us: Anacortes, Whatcom County, Bellevue, Snohomish, Spokane, Grays Harbor, and many more.
This week back in 2012, Let’s Loop Seattle had a booth at the Bellevue Arts Fair. One of our earliest victories was at the Bellevue Arts Museum: Loops went in at the BAM counter, auditorium, and at some exhibits. As Let’s Loop Seattle and HLAA’s Get in the Hearing Loop movement grew, I learned how to ask for hearing accommodations in many different ways, and ask I did. I went from being that friend who didn’t hear well to being an outspoken advocate for people with hearing loss.
The ADA gave us the muscle to open doors to access, but it’s our friends and allies who have made the difference between success and failure. The strength and influence of HLAA-WA and our local hearing loss heroes became apparent as looped venues sprang up in chapter communities. National legacy hearing loss advocates like Patricia Kricos, Brenda Battat, Stephen O. Frazier, Juliette Sterkens, and here in Washington State, Jerry and Joanna Olmstead, Karen Utter, Bruce Rafford, Diana Thompson, Wes Brosman, and others laid the groundwork for accessibility. Let’s Loop Seattle built upon the foundations these advocates gave to their communities.
Today, the assistive listening technology industry has grown up along with the ADA. The early assistive listening systems were designed more to meet compliance than to really help people hear. In contrast, hearing loops are the real deal: they’re universal, non-proprietary, hearing-aid-compatible, easy to use, and so well-loved that they’re found everywhere around the world.
Gone are the days when I’d sprint through Dallas-Fort Worth airport after missing an important PA announcement. Today, some airports have hearing loops, others have visual paging systems or visual messaging, and you can use a smartphone app to receive notices of gate changes. These notification systems are helpful, but loops are still needed everywhere that essential information is communicated when we travel: ticket purchasing, rebooking, tracking lost luggage, and renting cars.
What if the next 32 years could bring an even bigger shift in our thinking and a deeper commitment to the ADA’s promise? Imagine if we could live in a community designed for engagement and accessibility, where all people can gather comfortably and be welcomed into the conversation. Communities are stronger when everyone is included.
What’s one thing you can do today to make your community hearing-friendly?