Abigail’s voice rang out clearly. Not only could I hear her, I could understand her.
“It works?” she asked, likely already knowing that it does.
“It’s wonderful,” I replied. It was wonderful because speaking with Abigail, a young woman and a cashier at the Publix in Sun City Center, was probably the first time I was able to have a normal conversation with a cashier in a grocery store. I could actually hear and understand every word she said.
Auditoriums, theaters and churches are among the worst. Grocery stores are difficult but fairly straightforward — you place items on the belt and you pay for them. I use a credit card because it’s easier than repeatedly asking the amount owed. But if questions arise, so, too, do problems.
Pharmacies are a challenge and can even be embarrassing as customers line up while questions and requests from clerks go perhaps not unheard, but not understood. Drive-thru windows at fast food restaurants? Forget it — it’s a roll of the dice. I once wasted ten minutes of my life at a drive-through restaurant in Massachusetts merely attempting to order a strawberry shake. I gave up on the tinny-sounding speaker and attempted to read the lips of the restaurant employee at the window, only to eventually learn the shake machine was out of order.
Hearing loss isn’t just for old people. Today, up to 48 million Americans suffer from some form of hearing loss, yet only one in five of those who would benefit from hearing aids actually have them. But as technology advances, so do the benefits and the number of people taking advantage of them.
Increasingly, hearing loss is showing up in new populations including teenagers and in veterans who have returned from active duty. Hearing loss is an invisible disability. No one can see it and sometimes repeating what wasn’t heard or understood in the first place doesn’t help. The common response to my standard, “I’m sorry, I’m hearing impaired, could you repeat that?” is often followed by, “Oh, that’s okay.”
Left untreated, hearing loss can result in a host of problems, not the least of which are feelings of isolation and, eventually, the increased possibility of clinical depression. As a growing public health issue, hearing loss is third in line behind heart disease and arthritis in frequency among Americans.
My hearing loss is significant but my hearing aids are of the latest technology and, to me, are a miracle. Yet churches, auditoriums, theaters and even the ability to understand a cashier in a noisy grocery store are all things that are often beyond their capabilities. That isn’t necessary. As Abigail at the Sun City Center Publix store so wonderfully demonstrated, normal, everyday communication is possible for the hearing impaired.
Inductive hearing loops are not new and are considered basic technology. It is not rocket science but the benefits are immeasurable for those suffering from hearing loss. At the Sun City Center Publix, and in two other stores in Florida, the company is testing hearing loops on one aisle (aisle 8 in Sun City Center), at the customer service desk and at the pharmacy.
As of press time, Publix was unable to respond to questions about how long the test will continue or whether the program will be rolled out to other stores.
According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, the United States lags behind other developed nations in the implementation of hearing loops but progress is slowly being made. In Sarasota County, nearly a dozen theaters were equipped with hearing loops for those wearing hearing aids, and made hearing devices available to those with some hearing loss but without hearing aids. Earlier this year, Amtrak installed hearing loops at ticket and customer service desks in New York and Washington and a handful of area churches have installed loops, as has Community Hall in Sun City Center. Virtually all modern hearing aids and cochlear implants have the capability of working with hearing loops.
Most people would think the last place that would need inductive hearing loops would be movie theaters, with incredibly loud sound systems with booming bass notes that can vibrate the stadium seating. But for many hearing impaired people, the volume, coupled with echoes, results in hearing nothing but deep, muddy noise. Although some movie theaters have installed hearing loops, they remain relatively few, thus those without are potentially cutting off the big screen experience for millions of would-be moviegoers.
As a result, the growing population of people suffering from the seemingly invisible disability of hearing loss is potentially costing some businesses money. For businesses, the installation of hearing loops can range from just over a thousand dollars to more than ten thousand dollars, depending upon the nature and size of the site. At the Kings Crossing Publix in Sun City Center, the loops are specifically localized and a hearing impaired person must stand within a few feet of the universal symbol depicting the availability of the loop. Such installations on an individual store level would generally be less expensive, although in the case of Publix, with a large number of stores, it would incur significant cost for implementing loops across the company.
But for a hearing impaired customer, the results are priceless. The hearing loop allows the voice of the cashier, pharmacist or customer service representative to be piped directly into the hearing aids, greatly reducing background noise while increasing clarity. It brings with it the somewhat rare possibility of normal communication for the hearing impaired, where it would otherwise be impossible.
Dr. Heather Untied-Leonard, an audiologist with Central Florida Speech and Hearing Center, directed the project at Publix. Dr. Leonard has experience in the community as, according to her bio, she completed her fellowship at Physician’s Choice Hearing and Dizziness Center, with an office in Sun City Center. The two other Publix test stores are located in Lakeland and in The Villages.
According to Shirley Nauman of the Sun City Center chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America, whether or not Publix expands the availability of hearing loops in their stores depends upon the feedback received from customers in the three test stores. Survey brochures are available at the customer service desk or online at www.tinyurl.com/observer-hearing.
Back in Sun City Center, Abigail was knowledgeable about the system and seemed gratified that it was appreciated. She has a beautiful voice and it was a pleasure to actually hear it. For my next grocery-shopping trip, I’ll be waiting in line on aisle 8.