Most theatres use assistive listening systems, but according to the British Irish Hearing Instrument Manufacturers Association (BIHIMA), this does not always ensure a good experience for audiences with hearing loss. 

As part of a project to establish a standardised level of service at theatres across the country, BIHIMA has been working with hearing device user Susan Hamilton (right).

Susan loves going to the theatre and is well prepared for potential issues. She contacts venues ahead of time and, if possible, visits the venue in advance. Yet in the last three years, she has only had two problem-free visits to a theatre out of 12 performances attended. From out-of-date systems to ineffective technology and a night when the headphones picked up every backstage call alongside the performance audio, her experience has rarely been straightforward.  

“The front-of-house staff I encounter are most often very eager to help,” she said. “But unfortunately, the systems seem to be managed or tested by people who don’t fully understand hearing loss, nor know what to do if it hasn’t worked. Loop systems are only really suitable for people who don’t wear prescriptive hearing devices, and systems using the T setting tend to be intermittent, poor quality and quite often drop out completely. Hearing devices are extremely sophisticated and listening assistive systems are not. 

She said friends who use different hearing devices have experienced similar challenges: On occasions we’ve gone to theatre together and each had a different outcome. Hearing devices are prescriptive to an individual’s hearing loss, therefore offering a single system simply cannot work. It's like offering the same pair of glasses to everyone with a sight impairment and expecting them all to see perfectly.”  

The lack of standardisation creates a barrier for people with hearing loss. BIHIMA is calling for an agreed minimum standard at venues across the UKPaul Surridge (left), Chair of BIHIMA, said: “In 2023 we should not be in a situation where hearing instrument users are still experiencing these issues. Looking through the accessibility information published on theatre websites you can see the disparity in support; for some it’s a priority and for others it’s almost a tick-box exercise.”  

AccessAble is an organisation that has surveyed tens of thousands of venues, including theatres, shops, restaurants, hotels, universities and hospitals, to create an accessibility guide. Beth Wooller (right), an ambassador for AccessAble, said: “As someone who uses hearing aids and lip reading, I find the mixed and often unpredictable experience of theatre-going can put me off going to the theatre at all.   

It often seems that every theatre has a different accessibility booking process and sound quality during the performance, with staff’s deaf awareness varying greatly at every stage. I often rely on my companion to repeat large parts of the performances otherwise I feel very left out. While improved hearing aid systems are being put in place, more subtitled performances and easier access to seats near the front to lipread would be welcomed. AccessAble’s website takes some of the stress out of theatre-going, and I’d love to see more theatres sign up and show their commitment to being truly inclusive.”  

Bluetooth Auracast has been hailed as the next generation of assistive hearing technology, allowing a single audio source to transmit to unlimited listeners at once, and seems to have the potential to resolve many of the inconsistencies. This new technology has yet to reach the market but could change how people experience audio in public venues.   

Paul Surridge added: “It’s clear that venues need to better understand how their chosen systems work and to offer effective alternatives. Until we can test new technologies such as Auracast we’d welcome a collective agreement to drive positive change in the industry, such as a minimum level of service those with hearing loss can expect.”