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Making Public Spaces Safer, Easier to Navigate for the Hard of Hearing

Accessibility is a significant issue for people with disabilities, including those with sensory limitations like hearing loss. Beyond the legal requirements, making public areas easy and safe for everyone to navigate is fair, respectful, and just plain good for business. So, what can and should be done to make our public spaces as accessible as possible to those with hearing difficulties?

Clear communication

Anyone who has traveled by train, plane, bus, or subway in the U.S. knows that even if your hearing is perfect, it is often difficult (if not impossible) to understand important announcements coming through the public address system. To improve accessibility to vital information, simultaneous closed captioning of P.A. announcements should be prominently displayed in airports, stations, and on platforms (e.g., LED electronic signs). U.S. expansion of induction loop use in public spaces would greatly benefit hearing aid wearers, who can use the telecoil (T-coil) setting on their hearing aids to pick up P.A. alerts directly into their hearing aids. Beyond transportation hubs, induction loops also provide greater access in auditoriums, concert halls, theaters, places of worship, and other public venues. American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters should also be included in any public address or performance staging.

Safety measures

Knowing about track changes or flight delays is important, but access to emergency alerts is imperative. Public spaces, from a transportation hub to a sports arena, always have the potential to become unsafe environments that may necessitate an immediate evacuation or other security response. Visual alarms should go off when audible alarms sound (e.g, bright, flashing lights). Posters, visual readouts, and other signs should offer the same emergency instructions as P.A. safety announcements. All evacuation routes and exits should be clearly lit, with clear directions and signs posted. The staff of any public venue should include sign language interpreters and others trained in communicating with the hard of hearing, especially during emergencies.

Accessible education

Public schools and institutions of higher learning are required to accommodate students with hearing loss. Basic accessibility includes providing FM systems that allow students to stream a teacher’s voice directly into their hearing aids or providing an ASL interpreter as needed. However, beyond the basics, schools should look to Gallaudet University as an example of providing a truly inclusive campus. A few suggestions:

  • Arranging classrooms in semi-circles so that students have equal views of their professor, blackboards, visual presentations, and each other’s hands and mouths
  • Making sure hallways and walkways are wide enough so those who use sign language have room to walk side-by-side. Even students who have some hearing can benefit from these, as they often use visual cues to enhance verbal comprehension during conversations
  • Incorporating more ramps, so that someone focused on visual cues doesn’t trip over stairs
  • Well-lit spaces to make it easier to read signs and maintain environmental awareness. Using diffused lighting can also reduce eye strain and glare for visually-dependent people
  • Incorporating mirrors improves situational awareness and safety by helping people who can’t hear well see if someone or something is coming up behind them

Inclusion is a human right. If you or someone important to you has hearing loss and sees an opportunity to improve public accessibility, you can contact the U.S. Department of Justice.