The experience of attending a performance or a lecture at the Lensic Performing Arts Center will soon be greatly improved for Santa Fe residents with hearing loss. By July 8, the theater plans to have completed installation of a new assisted listening hearing loop technology, Director of Operations Randy Rasmussen tells SFR.
In December 2018, retired violinist Pam Parfitt set up a fund at the Santa Fe Community Foundation to raise the money to install the Lensic's loop system. The fund is currently $5,000 short of the $31,000 cost of the system. Parfitt tells SFR that though she has pledged to make up the difference through her own private funds, she is hoping to raise the final amount by the installation date.
As a classically trained musician who had dedicated a lifetime to the pursuit of sound, her experience of music became bittersweet when she began to lose her hearing. Per the Americans with Disabilities Act, every public place of assembly is required by law to have an assisted listening system, but nothing could perfectly reproduce the quality of the sound of instruments played in symphonic harmony.
Then one day last fall, Parfitt attended a lecture at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Santa Fe, one of a handful of churches in the city equipped with loop technology.
"When I heard the quality of the sound, it was unlike anything I could have hoped for. It was like I was standing right next to the speaker at the front of the room," Parfitt tells SFR. This experience led her to advocate for the adoption of the hearing loop system in public spaces across the city.
Hearing loops are the international standard for hearing accommodations in public spaces. Unlike conventional assisted listening systems that work through headsets, the hearing loop system transmits an electromagnetic signal directly to the telecoil inside the user's hearing aid device, which converts the signal into sound and blocks background noises. Most hearing aids are equipped with this technology and some are able to customize the sound to the individual needs of the user.
With the conventional headsets, Parfitt tells SFR that people with hearing loss would have to buy tickets in the very first rows of the theater in order to hear properly, making cost one prohibitive factor preventing people with hearing loss from attending public performances. With the hearing loop, she says the quality of sound will be just as good in the back row as in the front, making for a much more inclusive experience.
Stephen O Frazier, director of the Hearing Loss Association of America's New Mexico Chapter, tells SFR that social stigma is another factor that limits many people with hearing loss from participating in public events.
"The public usually assumes that people with hearing loss are primarily elderly, but in fact 65% of people who have measurable hearing loss are under retirement age," Frazier says. "Many people with hearing loss, especially if they are younger adults, might not want to ask for a headset because it publicly identifies them as someone with a disability. With the hearing loop they can very discreetly turn on the telecoil in their individual hearing aid when they enter the space."
In March, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law a bill that requires audiologists and hearing aid dispensers to inform patients of the availability of devices that provide direct connections between the hearing aid and assistive listening systems, such as the new loop system to be installed at the Lensic. Other public spaces equipped with such systems in Santa Fe include the City Council chambers.
Parfitt isn't stopping with the performing arts center. She plans to meet with city and state officials to discuss looping buildings such as the Roundhouse and the Municipal Courthouse as well.
Rasmussen tells SFR that wiring for the system will be laid down under new carpeting when the Lensic closes its doors later this month for an annual maintenance period. When the doors reopen, the hearing loop should be up and running.