Members associated with local chapters of the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) will descend upon Annapolis on Thursday to champion legislation that would ensure hearing systems are installed at public venues in the state.
The bill will be discussed at a hearing before the House Appropriations Committee.
“I want people who have hearing loss to come out of the shadows and speak up and advocate for yourself,” said Veronica Davila, president of HLAA’s Prince George’s County chapter. “Let people know, ‘I cannot hear you. I need help.’ Education is the key.”
Advocates in Maryland estimate more than one million residents are prevented from participating in meetings, events and performances because of hearing loss.
Davila, who went completely deaf in her left ear in September 2012 and now has cochlear implants in both ears, will join chapter leaders from Montgomery and Frederick counties and the greater Baltimore area to call for any projects using state money for new construction or renovation of an “assembly area” to also include an assistive listening system.
Such setups would be wired to a sound system that would connect to a person’s listening device such as hearing aid and cochlear implant.
According to the legislation sponsored in the House by Delegate Kris Valderrama and in the Senate by Sen. Obie Patterson, both of Fort Washington, the facilities in question include an amphitheater, auditorium, concert hall and courtrooms.
No fiscal analysis is yet available to determine what financial effect that implementing these systems would have on state and local government or small businesses.
Valderrama said the audio system technology would save government money because the state-of-the-art equipment is more durable and doesn’t need as much upkeep as other devices such as a neck loop.
“It’s my hope that this legislation will allow citizens with hearing loss to hopefully participate in our community … and hopefully will be able to hear what is going on,” Valderrama said.
In Prince George’s County, Davila said the Wegmans supermarket in Lanham and a McDonald’s in Laurel have audio loop systems installed. For county meetings, Prince George’s provides listening devices for the hearing-impaired to place around their necks, but requests for the devices must be made at least 48 hours prior to a public meeting.
The loop systems are inside Montgomery County government and executive buildings. Not only does the Strathmore theater in Bethesda of provide a radio frequency assistive listening system, it also offers patrons open captioning and sign-language interpretations of performances. Each are available upon request 14 days prior to a performance.
Although the invisible disability was incorporated as part of the American Disability and became law in July 1990, thousands of buildings nationwide either have faulty or old technology or none at all, according to the chapter leaders.
Because of the lack of government oversight, the legislation also requires the creation of a Hearing Accessibility Advisory Board. The members would be appointed by the state Department of General Services and include those with hearing loss and experience with assistive listening systems and monitor facilities. The legislation also calls for proper maintenance, training of staff and adequate signage.
The bill, labeled the Equal Access for Marylanders with Hearing Loss Act, wouldn’t require existing buildings to build in the technology.
If approved by the House and Senate and signed by the governor, the legislation would take effect in July.
The bill comes ahead of the Food and Drug Administration’s plan to introduce federal regulations next year for businesses selling over-the-counter hearing aids to make them more affordable. Currently, some devices can cost several thousand dollars.
“Far too often people with hearing loss are denied the opportunity to fully participate in public settings, such as public hearings, PTA meetings, town hall meetings, or community theater performance,” Davila and nine other HLAA chapter leaders and members said in a Feb. 25 letter to the House Appropriations Committee. “We know firsthand the frustration of being left out of meetings we could have contributed to or performances we would have loved to enjoy.”