The Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport will soon be the first in Florida to set up a type of assistive listening system at all of its gates that transmits sound directly to the listener’s ear through a small receiver available in most hearing aids.
The system, due to be installed in mid-April, is called a hearing loop assistive listening system and delivers a distortion-free sound ideal for airport boarding areas, where ambient noise and other problems often make listening with hearing aids and other assistive listening devices virtually impossible.
That is a big deal for Sarasota and Manatee counties, where a third of the population is over 65 and where hearing loss impacts at least 160,000 — or 19 percent — of residents, according to Richard Williams, a trustee with the Hearing Loss Association of America Sarasota/Manatee chapter, the not-for-profit organization that helped bring the technology to the airport.
“Imagine never being able to hear an announcement and constantly having to check with gate attendants. You’re working against time trying to navigate a situation where you don’t know what’s happening,” said Williams, 75, who has severe hearing loss and wears an implanted hearing device. “Soon we will be able to hear, understand, and not have to run up to someone just to find out what’s going on.”
The Hearing loop system, which will be linked in all 13 gates in SRQ’s terminal, sends a direct communication from where the announcement is being made to the telecoil technology inside more than 70 percent of hearing aid models. The hearing loop also works with cochlear implants and is already used in more than a dozen live stages and theaters across Sarasota and Manatee counties.
Compared to other systems, a hearing loop reduces staff time, maintenance, and equipment costs, according to the Hearing Loss Association.
The hearing loop also allows a significant number of people with hearing loss to access the system without the need to borrow or return airport-provided equipment, which Williams said is often filthy, outdated, and unusable. Many times the batteries are not charged and do not help people with severe hearing loss.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires that all commercial airlines comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide some things such as closed-captioned monitors, assistive technology, and various seating accommodations. However, improving assistive technology for flyers has largely been left up to individual airlines and airports who often only adopt the technology when approached by hearing advocates, said Juliette Sterkens, the national spokeswoman for the Hearing Loss Association of America.
A handful of airports in other states, including Michigan, New York, Texas, New Mexico, and Georgia have already implemented the technology at all or most gates.
“Hearing loops should be likened to wheelchair ramps,” said Sterkens, who is also a retired audiologist. “A wheelchair is wonderful but it cannot get into a building without a ramp. Hearing aids are wonderful, but they only work about 10 feet from the sound’s source. Our society would be appalled if someone couldn’t get into a building because there was no ramp, but we don’t bat an eye for those with hearing loss who can’t hear.”
Most airports are not aware that the technology exists until someone brings it to their attention, said Rick Piccolo, president and CEO of Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.
“After we realized it was available, it didn’t take us long to decide that, given our age demographics in this area, the needs for technology are probably greater here than in other places.”
Piccolo said that once the technology is fully adopted, the airport will provide more opportunities and greater inclusion for the nearly 3,000 to 5,000 passengers waiting to board planes this spring. It will cost an estimated $125,000 — a worthwhile investment, he said, because the average flyer at the airport is 10 years older than at other airports.
“It will make accessing our terminals easier and gives us an opportunity for us to ease the stress level associated with traveling,” Piccolo said. “The last thing we want is for people to feel uncomfortable when all they want to do is hear an announcement.”
This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community to take action on issues related to Age-Friendly Sarasota, Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, National Council on Aging and the Suncoast Nursing Action Coalition.