Just before the College World Series, it was mentioned at a press conference that TD Ameritrade Park is equipped with a “loop system.”
Listeners heard right. At the ticket office and in certain seating sections, the 1-year-old ballpark features what’s called an induction-loop hearing system.
Members of the local hearing-impaired community are cheering, even though the stadium’s system isn’t widely used so far. But they say it’s part of a trend at public venues in the Omaha area and around the country.
With the graying of America as baby boomers age, more and more of us suffer from hearing loss. The installation of loops at the stadium sends a message.
“I hope it opens other people’s eyes,” said Diane Muelleman of Omaha, a member of the Hearing Loss Association of America. “We need more public spaces looped for people with hearing loss.”
The technology, advocates say, could transform the lives of tens of millions of Americans — in museums, churches, meeting rooms and other public spaces. It is widely adopted in northern Europe.
A hearing loop is a strand of copper wire emitting electromagnetic signals to a receiver — called a telecoil, or t-coil — in most hearing aids and cochlear implants. The loop is typically installed on or in the floor around a room or other space, such as a sanctuary or a section of a ballpark or arena.
The person who steps “into” the loop receives only the sounds coming directly from a speaker’s microphone — such as a minister at a church or the public-address announcer at the ballpark — and not all the background noise.
Roger Dixon, executive director of the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, which oversees the ballpark, said installing the system when the stadium was built cost in the $20,000 range.
It was recommended by Boston consultant Kevin McGuire, who advises nationally on the Americans with Disabilities Act. Though the law doesn’t mandate loop systems, it does require that public venues provide “effective access” for people with hearing loss.
That can mean lending a headset with an FM receiver, but the loop system is state of the art. If the loop system is well-received and works at the ballpark, Dixon said, MECA would consider installing loops at the CenturyLink Center Omaha, the site of concerts, banquets and athletic events such as this week’s U.S. Olympic Swim Trials.
McGuire, 51, said in a phone interview that after the Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990, most of the litigation had to do with mobility issues. A lawyer, he uses a wheelchair because he was paralyzed when a drunk driver struck him while playing ball in a yard at age 7.
Now, he said, instead of mobility-related disability issues, more are sensory-related.
“People with sensory disabilities can be quite assertive in demanding whatever rights they perceive under ADA,” McGuire said. “You’ve got a pretty assertive hard-of-hearing community in Nebraska. They love this looping system.”
When I checked with MECA last week, I was told that only one hearing-impaired fan had asked to sit in a looped section at the College World Series.
That was Daniel Muelleman, 23, a Creighton University graduate who is entering the Creighton Law School. (His mother is Diane Muelleman, quoted above.)
Daniel said he hoped to buy a reserved seat close to the infield, but no seats in the looped areas there were available. So he bought a general-admission ticket and sat in the looped section beyond the fence in left-center field.
He can easily turn his t-coil on and off. When it’s on, he can hear directly what’s coming through the stadium PA system.
“I had it on for the national anthem to hear what it sounded like,” he said. “It worked. But when I switch to the t-coil, it turns off what the hearing aid normally does, which is picking up regular sound.”
Diane, who serves on the Nebraska Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, noted that the advantage of a loop system isn’t volume. “The environmental sounds are minimized or eliminated,” she said, “and the sound of the voice is clear and understood.”
TD Ameritrade Park apparently is one of the first stadiums with hearing loops. Yankee Stadium and Citi Field in New York and Target Field in Minneapolis are among those with loop systems at ticket windows.
Janice Schacter Lintz, a lawyer and self-described stay-at-home mom who promotes loop systems as head of the Hearing Access Program in New York, said 30 percent of people older than 65, and one in five teenagers, have some form of hearing loss.
Previous generations didn’t live as long as people do today, she said, and hearing loss will become more of an issue. Meanwhile, she said, health inspectors grade restaurants, but no one checks out Disabilities Act violations.
“The burden is shifted to the people, and it places you in the position of having to battle the world,” she said. “Progress is being made, but there needs to be a lot more progress.”
I first wrote about loop systems a year ago, when Broadway Christian Church in Council Bluffs had one installed. Omaha ear specialist Dr. Britt Thedinger of Omaha said the systems are very good.
Last month, St. Pius X Catholic Church completed installation of such a system, also known as an audio loop. Mary Dyer and Sheryl Butler of Glenwood, Iowa, who facilitated the installation at both churches, are talking with other houses of worship about hearing loops.
“What has changed,” Dyer said, “is that the knowledge of hearing loops is going viral. Once a person with hearing loss gets to experience a loop, there is no going back.”