The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For those with hearing impairments, restaurant noise isn’t just an irritation. It’s discrimination.

(Franziska Barczyk/for The Washington Post)

It was supposed to be a joyful family gathering.

Last spring, Kim Powers-Brown took an overnight train from her home in eastern Washington state to join her relatives at a restaurant near Seattle. Because of her hearing difficulties — she cannot understand speech amid background noise — the group of four requested a quieter spot.

“The waitress said no, that side of the restaurant was closed and she was the only waitress on duty — it would be too much trouble,” Powers-Brown said.

The family was led to a corner table, with a speaker playing music overhead. She couldn’t understand a word. Her brother demanded they sit in the quieter closed section. “I begged him not to embarrass me,” said Powers-Brown, who was born partially deaf and wears a hearing aid in one ear.

Why I will start including accessibility information in my restaurant reviews

“I apologized twice, but we were still treated rudely,” she said. “It was very uncomfortable. I felt terrible that our get-together meal was such a disaster because of my needs.”

Under Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act, restaurants — as places of public accommodation — must accommodate disabilities. But what if the disability is a hearing impairment, and the request is for a lower volume? On this issue, the law has largely remained silent.

Hard-of-hearing diners report a vast range of responses when they seek softer music or quieter seating. Sometimes the music is turned down or off, and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it is even turned up. Maybe the volume is declared unchangeable, set by corporate overseers. Or there’s no available seating far from the clattering kitchen, the droning ventilation, the hearty partyers.

Powers-Brown, 60, who is earning a library degree, rarely dines out with anyone but her husband. She never even thought to request quiet. “I was brought up to adjust to others,” she said. Instead of struggling to converse over a meal, she reads.

The law, though, requires “full and equal enjoyment in places of public accommodation,” said Daniel Fink, a retired Los Angeles doctor and a noise activist. His paper on the disability-rights aspects of ambient noise was presented at a recent meeting of the Acoustical Society of America. “I can guarantee that people with hearing impairments don’t fully enjoy noisy restaurants,” he said.

Restaurants these days are louder than ever, to the point where critics (led by The Post’s Tom Sietsema) check volume levels and diners grouse about them.

Restaurant noise routinely climbs into the high 70-decibel range (the whir of a canister vacuum) and sometimes hits the mid-80s (the roar of a nearby diesel truck). At 70 decibels, only half of speech is intelligible. By 75 decibels, people can’t converse at all without shouting. And that’s for people with normal hearing.

No appetite for noise

And yet a full one-quarter of American adults have hearing trouble. Prevalence rises in older age groups as noise damage accumulates — meaning that restaurants and other loud places are not only more difficult for such groups, they are also at least partly responsible for the hearing loss itself.

“Everyone thinks that hearing loss is a normal part of aging,” Fink said. “It’s not. The major cause of hearing loss is noise exposure, and it’s entirely preventable.”

Difficulty conversing in a restaurant is often the first sign of hearing trouble. The inability to understand speech in noise — which doesn’t appear on a standard hearing test — is sometimes called “hidden hearing loss.” Researchers know it as cochlear synaptopathy.

Hearing aids barely help. The acoustically harsh surfaces in so many restaurants — especially since it’s become fashionable to ditch linens and curtains in search of a rustic and/or modern aesthetic — intensify the clamor.

“High ambient noise levels pose an access barrier, just as curbs pose an access barrier for wheelchairs,” Fink said. “Auditory disorders are invisible disabilities. The problems associated with hearing loss are underestimated.”

The din is also potentially injurious to diners with hearing disorders such as tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and hyperacusis (noise-induced pain). Sometimes, their symptoms don’t intensify until a day or so after exposure, much like a sunburn.

“Few people realize the risk of permanent auditory damage from loud public places,” said Bryan Pollard, president of the nonprofit Hyperacusis Research.

Fink himself was injured by restaurant noise. A dozen years ago, he left a loud New Year’s Eve fête with tinnitus and mild hyperacusis. He now struggles to find a restaurant where he can comfortably converse with his wife. “The noise bothers me so I wear earplugs,” he said. “If the music has a thump-thump beat or heavy cymbals, it sets me on edge.”

For those seeking quiet dining spots, he suggests two crowdsourced apps for restaurant volume, Soundprint and iHEARu.

“Quiet indoor environments will benefit everyone, just as smoking bans do,” Fink said. “The simplest modification costs nothing. Turn down the amplified sound.”

To Pamela Greenhalgh, 66, a Los Angeles speech pathologist who has mild hyperacusis and hearing loss, loud restaurant music is painful. “I suffer terribly,” she said. “It feels like an ice pick being stabbed in my ear.” Loud restaurant noise makes her ears ring, too.

When she asks for softer music, “sometimes they argue with me,” she said. “I’ve had people get nasty, I’ve had people ignore me and I’ve had people be very kind. And when they say it’s controlled by corporate, I go to corporate. I follow up with management and go up the ladder.”

In public places, noise levels are not fully controllable, said D.C. restaurateur Ashok Bajaj, whose flagship restaurant, Rasika — notably loud in its earlier incarnation — included acoustic treatments in a renovation four years ago.

“When you go to a restaurant, you are dining with others; you are not just dining by yourself,” Bajaj said. “Diners have to be mindful that, if you go into a restaurant with 100 seats, it is going to be noisy no matter what you do. Sometimes you get a loud table, and there is nothing you can control about it. We accommodate our guests the best we can. It is difficult for the restaurant to please everybody.”

Noise as a disability-rights issue is an “evolving area of law,” said Ruth Colker, a law professor at Ohio State University, who specializes in disability law. If a restaurant refuses to accommodate a hearing disability, “you do not call the police,” she said. “That’s not going to help. It is a civil problem, and you can file a lawsuit with the assistance of a lawyer, which is not an easy thing to do.”

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People can also file a complaint, but “the Department of Justice brings very few enforcement actions against private entities for these kinds of violations,” Colker said.

Most restaurant disability lawsuits involve mobility issues: ramps, doors, bathrooms, parking. In such cases, “the courts haven’t been very generous in granting relief,” Colker said. Any relief granted is generally “injunctive relief” — an order that the restaurant stop its behavior.

Legally, disabled people are supposed to be granted reasonable modifications upon request, one exception being a modification that would fundamentally alter the nature of the business. Some restaurants, for example, brag that they are the loudest place in town.

“I could imagine that a court would say the fundamental nature of a restaurant is serving food,” Colker said. “Is it fundamental to the nature of a restaurant to offer background noise? That is an untested legal question.”

To Fink, another key function is socializing, something that’s impossible without easy conversation. “If we can make restaurants smoke-free, we can certainly make them quieter,” he said.

A restaurant also need not make a change that would be cost-prohibitive. The cost of damping the noise would be considered relative to the restaurant’s revenue, Colker said. Lowering the volume would likely be considered a reasonable change; redesigning the interior for better acoustics might not be.

Meanwhile, frustrated diners find themselves scoping out restaurants in advance, scouring reviews for mentions of noise and scrutinizing photos for hard, echoey surfaces. They dine at off hours. And they resort to takeout.

Cohen is a writer based in New York City.

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