May 2021 Canberra Times
Rod Taylor and Frieda Schimmelpfennig at The Old Canberra Inn, which is the drinking spot of choice for some in Canberra's hard of hearing community
For people who've experienced hearing loss, going out to a restaurant or a café in Canberra can be a depressing and isolating experience. Modern design trends mean many venues have large windows, lots of hard surfaces and minimal clutter. University librarian Frieda Schimmelpfennig said while that might look "spiffy", it was disastrous acoustically. "If you go to any venue of any kind, you keep up with conversation for about half an hour and then you zoom out, because your brain definitely needs some kind of rest," Ms Schimmelpfennig said. "If you're lucky, you'll zoom in back again, but you'll have missed half of the whole thing that was going on."
Ms Schimmelpfennig is among the Canberrans calling on noisy venues to do better by the hard of hearing community. Author and broadcaster Rod Taylor, who writes The Canberra Times' science column "Ask Fuzzy", said large areas with lots of hard surfaces became "echo chambers", in which it was difficult to distinguish speech. "The sound reverberates around the room and instead of becoming a sharp image, it's like having blurry sunglasses on, or blurry reading glasses," he said.
"The sound becomes mushed because there's a slight delay, so when I say 'te', you don't get [it clearly], you get it all smudged."
Mr Taylor was also hard of hearing, and said it took a huge amount of concentration to follow speech even in good environments. When it came to noisy environments, he said the impact was really serious. "If you want to socially isolate a person, you cut off their ability to hear speech, to participate in conversation, and it can be really extremely depressing," he said.
Mr Taylor and Ms Schimmelpfennig said it would be ideal if large operators invested in specialist acoustic design, but small operators could do simple things like add soft furnishings and turn their music down. They could also add things like paintings on their walls to break up the surfaces, as well as carpets, rugs, ceiling insulation and pot plants. "It soaks up the sound," Mr Taylor said.
There were also a lot of free mobile apps that measured sound decibels.
Sustained noise levels of more than 80 decibels - the equivalent of standing beside a busy road - could potentially be hazardous, the World Health Organisation says. Ms Schimmelpfennig said between 60 and 65 decibels was a comfortable noise level. Mandy Nyhof, an audiologist of 30 years, said many of her socially active clients at Brindabella Speech and Hearing Centre struggled when they went out to venues. "Ultimately, what tends to happen is that the person tends to withdraw and says to their friends, 'I'm not going to come out with you tonight', or something like that, because it's just too tiring," she said. "They don't understand anything, so they can't really participate in the social situation in those loud environments."
Ms Nyhof said it was a misconception that only older people experienced hearing loss, so venue operators could perhaps unknowingly be making a night out "really hard work" even for younger people."Our brain starts to lose the capacity to filter out unwanted noise and to hear speech effectively in those environments pretty much in your late 20s," Ms Nyhof said. "[People] who are in that age group between say, 35 and 55 - they won't have a hearing loss if you gave them a hearing test, but they will start experiencing difficulties hearing a background noise. "At a neurological level, their brain is just simply not able to process the information as effectively as it was."
Ms Nyhof said she encouraged her patients to get to know quieter venues in their areas, but the cynic in her suggested some venues used high noise levels as a tool to get a greater turnover.
"They don't want you coming for a meal and sitting there for three hours," she said.
The Old Canberra Inn was Mr Taylor and Ms Schimmelpfennig's pick for a hearing-friendly drinking spot. Co-owner Ben Johnston said many of the element's at the inn were purposefully designed to complement the acoustics, like the coffee bags on the ceiling of one room and soft furnishings throughout. "We just wanted it to be comfortable for people and also definitely not too noisy," he said. "[In the bikie days] of The Old Canberra Inn, they played really loud music. If you were game enough to go in there, that's what you were going to get assaulted with; it was always amped up and we just keep everything sort of toned down ... just to make it comfortable for people."
Mr Johnston said he was working on improving the acoustic design of the restaurant section of the new Dickson Taphouse, which mostly had tiles and hard floorboards