Martin Schram: A belated gift for hearing impaired theater-goers
By Martin Schram
Tribune News Service, December 24, 2014
This holiday season, the news media's big eye has focused bigtime on whether Americans will be able to indulge their holiday movie-going tradition by enjoying just one film - a silly spoof about a CIA plot to kill North Korea's dictator.
But this season I'm focusing on a different reality-based truth for all who hope to enjoy entertainment in playhouses, concert halls and theaters.
Namely: How wonderful it is that millions of Americans with profound hearing loss can now go to at least some theaters and entertainment venues and hear, for the first time, the full surround sound that is happening on the screen or stage.
Finally - belatedly! - some movie theater chains are installing simple technology that has been working in Europe for more than three decades to make theaters accessible for persons with hearing loss problems.
One relatively inexpensive technology involves installing a wire known as an audio loop around the perimeters of theaters. Theater-goers with even profound hearing loss can simply flip a switch on many hearing aids and cochlear implants; it activates a "T-coil" (for telecoil) that syncs their devices with sound that is carried magnetically on the theater's loop.
But movie complexes with several small theaters discovered a hitch in the loop technology: Sometimes audio spills over from one theater into another. That requires installation modifications.
Last month, America's theater chains and hearing loss advocacy associations reached an agreement in Washington that emphasizes a different approach: captioning devices. One new commercial technology involves special eyeglasses, made by Sony, with lenses that display built-in captioning.
It has taken far more than just a while to get America's movie theater chains moving. And even today's change wouldn't have happened without decades of drudgework by under-sung and under-praised citizen/activists - quiet yet persistent crusaders such as Grace Morgan, of Melbourne Beach, Fla., who has coped with profound hearing loss all her adult life.
Like most citizen/activists, Grace never dreamed she would become so involved - let alone help enrich lives of people she'd never met. We want to note her contributions today because, at age 92, she is nearing the end of her battle with a long illness. Yet, she has maintained her unassuming way of sharing her love and caring for those closest to her - a family circle I was honored to join when I married her eldest daughter.
Grace has also retained her keen interest in public affairs (and her sharp-eyed talent for critiquing even a favorite columnist's work!). Yet I'm sure she never saw herself as one who merited becoming a topic in any column that dwells (probably too often) on deeds of dreary politicians.
But the public work of this very private woman merits our attention. For decades, she had maintained a full but private career, most importantly: keeping a household running for her three children while her husband, Army Capt. George C. Morgan, was overseas during and after World War II.
Fast forward to the 1980s: While taking a sign language course at Washington's Gallaudet University, she met Rocky Stone, the former CIA intelligence specialist who had just formed the Self Help for the Hard of Hearing (now named Hearing Loss Association of America). Stone convinced Grace to organize a SHHH chapter in Florida's Brevard County.
She did that and then worked to assure it accomplished all it could. She pioneered efforts to install audio loops in theaters and educate citizens about hearing problems and solutions. She secured funding to install an audio loop in the Indian River Players Theater. "This is a real dream come true," she told Florida Today newspaper in 1986.
Grace received the Melbourne Sertoma Club's 1988 "Service to Mankind" award. A year later, Gov. Bob Martinez appointed her to the Florida Council for the Hearing Impaired.
Ever the public advocate, she has not lost her keen sense of outrage over the things government fails to do. Notably, she still fumes that Congress hasn't required Medicare to pay for hearing aids to enable needy Americans to maintain productive lives. There too, Europeans are way ahead of us.
But mainly she maintains, even now, her fine sense of wonderment about what technology can accomplish. The other day, in her bedroom in Melbourne Beach, Grace recalled what it was like the first time she sat in a theater equipped with an audio loop.
"It was the most wonderful, unbelievable experience," she said. "It opened up a whole new world for me."
ABOUT THE WRITER
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at email@example.com