New tech coming to Lensic will improve experience for hard of hearing people

February 17, 2019

For people with hearing loss, attending a musical performance or a going to the movies can be a challenge.

With headsets tangled in wires and devices that amplify all noise, including nearby whispers and buzzing air conditioners, some people with hearing impairment say they’d rather stay home than wait in line to borrow low-quality equipment that creates fuzzy static.

The Lensic Performing Arts Center hopes to change all that later this year. The Lensic plans to install a “hearing loop” — a system that directly transmits sounds via electromagnetic waves to hearing aids that have tiny receivers, called telecoils, for a customized listening experience.

The system is especially important in an arts-centric town with an aging population and will aim to better serve individuals who feel their “invisible disease” is too often overlooked and misunderstood.

“Accessibility and isolation has been a problem for all of us,” said Pam Parfitt, who’s had genetic hearing issues since she was 30. “I am limited in my life by how well my community understands and responds to hard of hearing people.”

Dianna Delling, the director of communications for the Lensic, said the venue is currently receiving bids from contractors for the project and said she is “really excited” to get the loop installed during the venue’s annual maintenance period in mid-June and early July.

Until recently, Delling said, “I never really understood how much of an affect [hearing loss] had on people’s lives.”

Parfitt, who will provide a grant to cover funds for the Lensic’s installation, said she got her first telecoil hearing aid last summer — a decision she said makes her feel “part of life again.”

When she presses a button on her hearing aid in a looped building, Parfitt said her device connects automatically to a wire loop that surrounds a seating area. The loop is linked to an amplifier and microphone, which transmits electromagnetic signals to teleocoils as well as cochlear implants.

“I click my hearing aid and voila! Crystal clear!” she said. “I can hear perfectly.”

Dick Meyer, who said he’s experienced hearing loss for more than 40 years, agreed, saying the telecoil is “a heck of a lot better” than other options.

While some locations in Santa Fe — including several churches, the Academy for the Love of Learning and the Santa Fe Playhouse — are looped, Parfitt said most venues use other Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant assisted listening systems, such as headsets that “make you look like a Martian” and static-prone boxes that utilize FM signal radio waves.

At the Santa Fe City Council Chamber, which is looped, Parfitt said on many occasions the system isn’t turned on and she has to hunt down someone who knows how to use it.

At the Lensic, which plays host to about 200 shows each year, Delling said the state-of-the-art technology will give patrons the opportunity to experience performances in “full form.”

“Especially in the arts,” she said, “it’s about hearing the beauty of the sounds, the nuances.”

Parfitt, a retired violinist, said in the past, she’s seen musical performances in which the instrument she loves so much “doesn’t sound like a violin at all. It doesn’t sound like anything.”

Although tech-enabled telecoil hearing devices have been around since the mid-2000s and have been implemented in New York taxicabs and performing arts centers all over Europe, Delling said she feels some cities are just now catching on.

Part of the issue, Meyer said, is that although most hearing aids have a telecoil, many people don’t know they have it — or if they do, may not know what it is or how it works.

This is why people with hearing impairment, he said, should know about House Bill 48 in the state Legislature. It would require audiologists and hearing aid dispensers to educate consumers about assistive listening technology options that are in accordance with the latest standards.

“It’s a very big step for us,” he said.

Parfitt said she thinks installing the loop at other venues should happen. Additionally, she said all movie theaters should consider the loop, and any new construction site with a public announcement system should “automatically” require installation.

Meyer, who said he’s been attending events at the Lensic for almost 15 years, said he believes businesses are “starting to recognize that there’s an untapped market.”

While Santa Fe has fewer than 15 places looped, Albuquerque has more than 75 installations — a gap Meyer said “we should be catching up to.”

The loop “brings a whole new world to people,” he said. “When you have the telecoil, the loop, you all the sudden become part of [the community] again.”