Navigating through legislative compliance requirements for assistive listening and understanding the technology that works best in a space can be a challenge. However, it is important to be informed about the technologies and innovations that are being developed to help those who have hearing loss, so they can continue to listen to the things they love.
Hearing loss is the invisible disability. Worldwide, 1.1 billion people live with some level of hearing loss and, on average, it takes seven years for someone to discover and treat his/her hearing loss. Even with hearing aids, it can be difficult to hear in challenging environments. Many people with hearing loss will withdraw from social events because it is difficult and frustrating to participate.
One of the biggest misconceptions with hearing loss is that a hearing instrument such as a hearing aid is a complete fix. Although a hearing instrument improves intelligibility, it works best when users are in environments that feature small groups of people with little to no ambient noise. Assistive listening systems (ALS) include amplifiers that deliver the broadcasted sound directly to a user’s hearing instrument or a personal receiver. By incorporating the use of assistive listening, people living with hearing loss are once again able to hear every word from the announcer or fully enjoy their favorite performance.
Just as accessibility is mandated for people living with physical disabilities and braille signage is required for those who are visually impaired, assistive listening is a requirement under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as similar laws globally.
The ADA states: “An assistive listening system shall be provided in assembly areas where audible communication is integral to the space. This means that any space where people gather (a boardroom, a banquet hall, a classroom or a movie theater) is required to have an assistive listening system. Assistive listening must cover the entire space of the venue, not just one area.”
(Note that some states use building codes that outline different standards for assistive listening than the ADA. For example, California uses the California Building Code (CBC) to define the standards for assistive listening requirements throughout the state.)
There are several existing and emerging technologies:
Radio Frequency (RF): RF works by transmitting the signal over radio frequencies (specifically, the FCC-regulated 72MHz and 216MHz bands) to a personal receiver or directly to a telecoil-enabled hearing instrument when used with a neck loop. This covers wide areas, both indoors and out, with no line-of-sight issues.
Infrared (IR): An IR system uses infrared light to transmit the audio source to a personal receiver or directly to a telecoil-enabled hearing instrument when used with a neck loop. This line-of-sight technology is ideal for confidential transmissions or close-proximity rooms.
Hearing Loop (or induction loop): A hearing loop system uses a copper wire installed along the perimeter of a room. It is connected to a loop driver, creating an induction field that can be picked up by an individual’s hearing instruments with a telecoil. Users who don’t have a hearing aid can still use a personal receiver with headphones. This is preferred by users whose hearing instruments feature a telecoil; there is no need to request a receiver, and the signal is delivered directly to the hearing aid.
WiFi technology: A new and emerging technology using a WiFi system to deliver the audio transmission directly to a user’s smartphone. It should be noted that this technology does not meet the compliancy regulations under the ADA, but allows a venue to offer another option to its patrons. This is a great option for venues such as churches that typically are not required to have assistive listening, but would like to accommodate the needs of everyone.
The challenges to finding the right technology for stadiums and arenas are that these venues feature wide-open areas, are often outdoors or partially outdoors, the number of potential users can vary greatly, and there probably is competing traffic (both in RF and WiFi).
To find the solution, let’s start by ruling out the technologies that won’t work, most likely (because there is never a one-size-fits-all), and then discuss the technologies that would be ideal in stadiums and arenas.
No: Infrared: Almost immediately, IR is ruled out in most stadiums and arenas because these venues typically feature wide-open spaces with sunlight where the infrared signal could easily get lost.
Maybe: WiFi: Ensuring that the WiFi system is able to use multiple access points placed strategically around the venue to give complete coverage, the technology can be successfully used to transmit audio. However, this solution is not yet ADA compliant.
Maybe: Hearing Loop: Hearing Loop technology can be used in a stadium and would meet the ADA regulations. However, it may not be the most practical solution based on the complexity of installation and the number of drivers required to support a large space.
Yes: Radio Frequency: RF is the go-to assistive listening technology for large stadiums and arenas, specifically in the 216MHz range, because this allows for the widest range coverage of up to 3000 square feet and is a less-crowded spectrum.