Photo credit: James Palinsad licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Both my parents served in the U.S. Army in World War II, met while in the service, and married shortly after the war ended. I was born a few years later. So I am a “baby boomer,” but I’m not a regular reader of BOOMER Magazine. That said, this article in BOOMER Magazine about noisy restaurants clearly defines the issue, even as it fails to deliver the right solutions.

The article talks about the heartbeat of a restaurant, i.e., the unique ambience. Unfortunately, in many restaurants that heartbeat is far too loud. The problem is that many baby boomers have significant (25-40 decibel) hearing loss, which makes it impossible to understand speech in a noisy environment. And in many cases, noise levels in restaurants and bars are loud enough to cause further hearing loss, discomfort, and even pain.

Many of us boomers are in our mid to late 60s. We may think of ourselves as “forever young,” but the reality is that (with graying and/or thinning hair, thickening middles, and bifocals) we are not the “demographic” that marketers and retailers want, even if many of us have a lot more money and a lot more time in which to spend it that younger people do. For many baby boomers our mortgages are paid off, the kids are done with college, and we’ve funded our retirements. And members of this demographic are looking for restaurants in which we can enjoy a meal AND a conversation with family and friends. But as long as the restaurants are busy–and they sure were in west Los Angeles last night–the restaurateurs and barkeeps have no reason to make things quieter.

This December I will be speaking on the disability rights aspects of ambient noise at the meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in New Orleans. It’s my position that the answer to excessive restaurant noise isn’t eating earlier, or choosing a quieter restaurant (a near impossibility in many cities, including mine), or grinning and bearing it, as BOOMER Magazine suggests, it’s making restaurants quieter. In many cases, this doesn’t cost anything: just turn down–or turn off–the music!

I’m a doctor with tinnitus and hyperacusis, not a lawyer. But it seems to me that those of us with partial hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis meet the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) definition of having a disability. The ADA defines an individual with a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.” If I’m correct, ADA regulations should require “places of public accommodation”–including restaurants and bars–to be quiet enough to allow those with auditory disorders to converse while enjoying a meal or a drink. That is, people with partial hearing loss, tinnitus, and/or hyperacusis should be protected under the ADA.

For those concerned that indoor quiet laws will hurt business, I turn to the example of no-smoking laws that were imposed on restaurants and bars. Restaurant proprietors and especially bar owners foresaw calamity, but a multitude of studies showed no impact on revenues. My guess is that if some smokers chose not to go to restaurants or bars, they were replaced by those who didn’t want a side order of secondhand smoke with their steak frites. Or the smokers learned to smoke before or after dinner, or to step outside if they wanted to smoke. And that’s what I predict will happen when indoor quiet laws are passed: diners will still go to restaurants, maybe even more of them.

Until reason prevails and restaurants are required to meet reasonable decibel limits, we must ask restaurant owners and managers to turn down the volume.  And if they want our business, they will do it. But what if our requests fall on deaf ears? The next step may be pursuing legal remedies under the ADA to require restaurants to provide a soundscape that protects everyone’s ears.

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