I was diagnosed with mild high-frequency hearing loss as a child, probably related to early ear infections and fevers. I remember a specialist telling my parents, “He’ll be fine, but he should stay away from loud machinery.”
I went on to spend 24 years at the Vineyard Gazette, logging thousands of hours in the production room where the four-unit Goss Community press, once brought up to speed, shakes the building and sounds like a locomotive under throttle.
In June of 2006, I took a job in a quieter setting, at the Edgartown Library. That summer a parade of people came to the front desk and asked for help in their best library voices. My responses were variations on the theme of “Could you speak up, please?”
My library colleagues suggested, in the kindest terms, that I have my hearing checked — and soon I was fielding patrons’ questions more nimbly, thanks to a pair of hearing aids that set me back a month’s pay but have served me ably now for almost eight years.
Several of my Island friends, noticing the new wires and the tiny Oticons behind my ears — I will admit to being inordinately proud that they’re made in Denmark — have asked me about them, and have ended up being fitted for hearing aids themselves. And several of their spouses have made a point of thanking me. Because hearing is one of the most profoundly social senses, and when hearing is improved the benefits accrue to both the listeners and the people who speak to them.
Hearing aids have improved greatly over the past decade, but they still can’t do for hearing what eyeglasses can do for sight. You can enjoy 20/20 vision with the right optics, but even the best hearing aids don’t restore the acuity of human ears at their youthful, healthy best. I’ve become an aficionado of acoustic spaces, because one of the greatest challenges to my hearing is background noise. When we go out for dinner together, my wife and I pick restaurants as much for their quiet, which means we’ll be able to enjoy our conversation, as for their cuisine.
I’ve also become sensitized to the way hearing loss is treated as a poor stepchild in the family of disabilities. Medicare and most insurance plans generally don’t pay anything toward the considerable cost of hearing aids, which is one good reason why an estimated 80 percent of the more than 35 million Americans with hearing loss aren’t wearing them.
Across the Atlantic, the European Union has its own version of our Americans with Disabilities Act, and it requires that public spaces include a technology most Americans haven’t even heard of. It’s the hearing loop, also called the audio-frequency induction loop or AFIL, and it sends an audio signal into any pair of hearing aids fitted with a telecoil.
In a widely-circulated New York Times story three years ago, the composer Richard Einhorn described hearing a performance of the musical, “Wicked,” at the Kennedy Center in Washington after the center was fitted with a hearing loop system.
“There I was at ‘Wicked’ weeping uncontrollably — and I don’t even like musicals,” he said. “For the first time since I lost most of my hearing, live music was perfectly clear, perfectly clean and incredibly rich.”
Hearing loop systems are ubiquitous in Europe — every London taxi cab has one — and nearly all hearing aids sold there are equipped with the telecoil that receives their signals. But on this side of the water, we’re way behind the curve.
Massachusetts has just a handful of hearing loop systems in public spaces. They’re being used in half a dozen places of worship — the nearest are St. Peter’s Church in Harwich and the Cape Cod Synagogue in Hyannis. The meeting room of the Dennis Public Library uses a hearing loop; so do Logan Airport in Boston and the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline.
On Martha’s Vineyard, any public space would be well served by the addition of a hearing loop. Church halls and performing arts spaces, selectmen’s meeting rooms, library program rooms, senior centers and our district court are among the prime candidates for a technology that promises to deliver clearer sound to the growing number of people with hearing aids. And as the loops become more common, hearing aids fitted with telecoils will become the standard, just as they already are in Europe.
Fortunately, the cost of this new technology is low. Most public spaces can be fitted with a hearing loop for about $10,000 — the price of two pairs of high-end hearing aids. Here’s hoping that someday soon, we’ll begin to see the hearing loop logo in the doorways of Vineyard spaces, promising help for hundreds of listeners in carving out meaning from the background of noise.