If you have hearing loss, you need hearing access. And if you want hearing access, you have to ask for it.
Most people—grocery cashiers, flight attendants and National Park rangers—are not going to look at you, recognize your issue and say, “Here, person with hearing loss, let me make this easier for you.”
Systems might be in place and waiting for you, such as print interpretation, captioning at the movies, bank counter loops to work with your telecoil, or other hearing aid and CI-compatible devices. But you may still have to ask for it. “Yo, I’ve got hearing loss. What have you got that will help me?”
That’s the theory. But sometimes the systems that are supposed to be in place, just aren’t.
The Hearing Husband and I have been on the road for months, off and on, in Flag, our trusty fifth wheel. By the time we re-enter Ontario next week, we will have driven 10,100 miles circumnavigating the United States. (Our apologies to New England which, on this trip, we have had to cut out completely.)
As travelers do, we’ve visited many attractions and events, most of which were accessible but some that didn’t quite meet the mark. At the Houston Rodeo, we watched from the CART provider’s booth. At Mount Rushmore, the historical movie was open-captioned (although the white words often washed out against the background). At the Hearst Castle, they gave me hearing aid-compatible headphones to understand the film’s narrator. (For those who can’t use the headphones, the same video is shown with captioning in a separate room. I’m still trying to figure that one out.) At Gettysburg, I used my hearing aid telecoils and a provided neckloop receiver. Print interpretation was everywhere. There was good signage at the Alamo, at the spot where Lewis and Clark ended their exploration, and where Wild Bill Hickok played his last hand of poker.
That was all good. But this week, for the first time in a long time, I had an inaccessible tourist experience—at Fort Sumter National Monument in Charleston, South Carolina, the site of the Civil War’s first action.
At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, confederate officer Lt. Henry S. Farley fired a shot at the Union-held Fort Sumter and then all hell broke loose. One hundred and fifty-four years and one day later, I fired another shot at Fort Sumter, this time on behalf of hearing accessibility. I don’t think any hell is breaking loose today, but I hope they are discussing it at this week’s Park Ranger’s staff meeting.
On the half-hour boat trip to the island fort, an historian used the boat’s PA system to talk about Fort Sumter, its background, and the rules for touring (no playing on the cannons or writing your name on the bricks). Because of the boat noise and a large group of high school students on a field trip, it was difficult to hear him, so I tuned out, intending to catch up once we got there.
Entering into the Fort, we were encouraged to gather around a National Park Ranger who talked for 15 minutes about the various battles and bombardments during the war. I’m sure it was very interesting but I can’t say for sure—he stood in shadow, used a PA system and had a moustache.
No problem, I thought to myself, this is a government organization and there must be some sort of access. I asked another Park Ranger standing nearby what access she could provide. She looked a bit panicked, but took me over to a desk near the entrance, found the key to open it, and looked at the pamphlets inside.
“Hmm, I know we have some copies of the speech. Oh here’s one.” She picked up a thick Braille booklet, but looked at me and we both shook our heads.
“I’m sorry, but we seem to have given all the written copies away.”
“That’s too bad,” I said.
“What if you moved through the crowd and stood close to him?”
“I tried. Listen, don’t worry about it now. But you really should make more copies for people like me who can’t hear very well.”
I wandered off to explore the fascinating place and read the information plaques. A while later, I came across both Park Rangers—the moustached speech-giver and the one who had tried to give me a Braille script, and who now had other papers in her hand. She said, “I was looking for you. I found a printout of the welcome speech and frankly, it’s full of mistakes, but someone has written in the correct dates and information.”
“Thanks,” I said and then, turning to the male officer, I said, “May I offer a suggestion. How about, at the beginning of your talk, you tell people that if they can’t hear you, written copies are available. Many people with hearing loss will just pretend to understand your talk, and are unlikely to ask for access. They will be grateful if you help them along a bit.”
“That’s a good idea, ma’am,” he said.
“And one other thing?”
“If you could trim your moustache just a titch, I could read your upper lip as well as your lower lip.”
“I’ll do that, ma’am, thanks for the advice.” And he seemed to mean it.
OK, so it wasn’t a major shot or a decisive battle victory for people with hearing loss. More like a little pop. But hopefully the next person with hearing loss who pays good money and goes to a great deal of effort to get over to Fort Sumter, will be able to understand what’s being said. And that would be worth it, because history is fascinating.
But, you have to ask. I didn’t train my new Park Ranger friends how to identify hard of hearing or deaf people. You’ll have to have to do that yourself.
The featured image, ‘Bombardment of Fort Sumter’, is an 1861 painting by Currier & Ives.
Aerial photo of Fort Sumter, credit ExploreCharleston