By January 1, 2015, businesses and not-for-profit organizations with more than 20 employees will be required by the Ontario government to provide accessible customer service and train their staff on how to serve people with disabilities.
That means that a dance studio must be able to provide information materials in an accessible format like a website, not just on paper, so that clients who have vision loss can read them with screen readers. It also means that a clothing store must either provide fitting rooms to accommodate wheelchairs, or provide an exemption to a no return policy if their wheelchair bound customers cannot try the clothes on beforehand.
It makes sense that, finally, in this modern age, businesses will be required to find better ways to serve the more than 1 in 7 persons with a disability in this province. It also makes sense from a business standpoint considering that ageing Ontarians and people with disabilities represent 40% of total income in Ontario. That's worth $536 billion to the Ontario economy, according to our government.
And yet, people who suffer from hearing loss continue to be the silent minority.
While the new government directive encourages the use of assistive devices -- pieces of equipment that a person with a disability can use to help them in their daily living -- it does not go far enough for people with hearing loss, many of whom have difficulty negotiating the world with hearing aids alone.
Assistive devices such as hearing loops are in use only in a small corner of our society, in churches mainly, but not in businesses, government service centres, hotels, transit or recreation facilities. (There are some exceptions, such as schools which utilize expensive FM systems which use microphones and transmitters to connect teacher and student.)
Nor are they in use in hospitals, conference rooms or many seniors' facilities. Nor are they offered as an "add-on" in new building construction.
And yet, hearing loops provide a cost-effective solution to many of the difficulties faced by people with hearing loss.
What are hearing loops?
Put simply, a hearing loop is a system of wires and microphones that are placed in a room or a designated area. People who wear hearing aids simply turn on a telecoil in their hearing aids or cochlear implants and can hear most of the sounds in the room just as a person with normal hearing does. (They don't work for everybody, but they do provide significant improvement in a person's hearing in a noise environment.)
Hearing loops are enormously popular in Europe where, for more than two decades, they have been installed in museums, taxicabs, even the London underground. And yet, they are rarely used in North America.
Recently, New York City has begun to encourage business to use hearing loops and now they are in all NYC taxi cabs. Even Yankee Stadium is looped!
If they are so effective, why aren't they becoming more available in Canada?
Part of the problem is that there is a general lack of awareness about hearing loops and what they can do to improve the quality of life and service for people with hearing loss. Right now, they are used only in churches and by some consumers who order them over the Internet from companies in Europe. There is also a lack of installers in Canada who are qualified and knowledgeable about microphone placement. Finally, there is a lack of buy-in from audiologists and hearing instruments professionals to promote their use. Some consumers report frustration that audiologists don't even bother to turn on the telecoil, which virtually renders hearing aids useless for use with hearing loops.
What is confounding is that hearing loops are very inexpensive, costing between $3,000 and $5,000 for a large conference room, as an example. Portable loops for use in homes, offices and cars cost less than $1,000 installed!
Those numbers are much cheaper than building wheelchair ramps and new dressing rooms.
And yet, such a simple fix is being ignored instead of being included in a business's accessibility plan.
There are a number of things that need to happen in Ontario in my opinion.
First, consumers must begin to demand these services from governments and businesses. They need to walk into their banks, hospitals, government kiosks and recreational facilities and ask why they are not being properly served. They need to stand up for their rights, under the Disabilities Act. Simply put, they need to start a dialogue.
As for businesses, they need to realize that installing hearing loops is good for business. In the U.S., where the Loop America campaign is in full swing, businesses are encouraged to become more hearing friendly and carry the sticker above, which indicates that their needs are being met.
If businesses, governments, hearing providers and consumers become engage, the change would be nothing short of miraculous.
It means a person with hearing loss could speak to the bank teller, ride public transit and hear the driver or hear their spouse while driving in a car equipped with a portable looping device. And it means that a person with hearing loss could talk to the nurse in emergency and save precious time.
Most importantly, if hearing loops were installed in more places, it would give people with hearing loss back a sense of normal.
If you would like to learn more about hearing loops, visit this site.
Remember, in Ontario, the use of hearing loops is no longer a privilege, it's are a right.