Disability Law

Are loud restaurants an ADA violation for people with hearing impairment?

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People with hearing impairment can have difficulty understanding speech in a noisy restaurant, even with hearing aids. Noise also poses a problem for people with ringing in their ears and noise-induced pain, which can intensify with exposure.

Does the noise violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, which bars places of public accommodation from discriminating against people with disabilities? The Washington Post considers the question.

Daniel Fink, a retired Los Angeles doctor and a noise activist, contends that the law should apply. He recently presented a paper on the issue to the Acoustical Society of America.

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

Restaurant noise often reaches 70 decibels, at which only half of speech can be understood by people with normal hearing, according to the Post. At 75 decibels, people have to shout to be heard. Some restaurant noise reaches a decibel level in the mid-80s.

Noise is rising at many restaurants because table linens and curtains have been eliminated as part of a more modern or rustic vibe. Crowds contribute to the noise.

The simplest modification that restaurants can make is to turn down amplified music, Fink said.

But modifications that would fundamentally alter a business don’t have to be made under the law, according to Ruth Colker, a law professor at Ohio State University who has expertise in disability law. Modifications that are cost-prohibitive also are not required.

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

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