Imagine going to a speech, sitting in the back row, and having the speaker's voice piped directly into your ear, sounding as clear as if he was standing right next to you.
For the growing population of people with hearing loss, this situation sounds like a dream. Hearing impairment often prevents them from enjoying movies, concerts, and speeches, and understanding important announcements broadcast over a loudspeaker or television.
A simple technology called a hearing loop system makes the dream possible - improving hearing accessibility across the country.
Hearing loops work by utilizing telecoils that come installed in most hearing aids. Telecoils are small, copper wires that were originally designed to help people with hearing impairment to hear over the telephone.
“Telecoils were invented in the 1970s,” explained Dr. Soriya Estes, an Austin, Texas-based audiologist. “This isn't a new wave technology. They've been around for decades.”
Dr. Estes, along with the American Academy of Audiology, the Hearing Loss Association of America, and many other organizations and individuals are advocating for hearing loops to be installed throughout the United States.
They say that it's an inexpensive and effective way to improve life for the 36 million Americans who are hard of hearing.
How It Works
A telecoil works by picking up an electromagnetic signal – the type of sound we hear over the telephone - and converting it into sound directly within the hearing aid. The hearing aid user has a switch to the telecoil on and off.
“Essentially a loop system plugs in to a PA system - anything that has a microphone or sound system, or even a television attached to it,” said Dr. Estes. “It's a copper wire that is installed around a room, and it plugs into the system. Anyone with a hearing aid that's telecoil enabled and sitting within that loop, the sound comes into their hearing aid via the telecoil.”
In other words, the sound comes into the hearing aid user's ear as if it was plugged in to the sound system, if they're sitting within the loop. The copper wire loop has created an electromagnetic field, enabling the sound signal to travel through space without being degraded by background noise or reverberations.
“It doesn't have to travel any distance acoustically,” Dr. Estes said. That's why the sound is so clear, she added.
The loop can be wired to serve an entire building, or just one room in a house.
Who It Serves
Thirty-six million Americans experience some degree of hearing impairment. The most common cause for hearing loss is aging, but it's become common for younger generations to lose their hearing as well.
Dr. Estes explained that noise exposure is the second biggest cause of hearing loss, next to aging. People who are constantly exposed to loud sounds, like musicians or construction workers, may lose their hearing at an early age.
Injury can also lead to hearing loss, as well as certain diseases.
Unfortunately, hearing loss can't be reversed. In many cases, it's progressive.
As hearing loss becomes increasingly common in young people, the population of people with hearing disabilities will grow, said Dr. Estes, and so will the demand for hearing accessibility.
And it's not just people with hearing impairments that are affected by their disability. It can be very difficult for family and friends who have a hard time communicating to their loved one.
An Alternative to Assistive Hearing Devices
The Americans with Disabilities Act mandates hearing assistance in public settings with over 50 fixed seats – places like movie theaters, concert halls, and auditoriums. What qualifies as “hearing assistance” in these locations varies.
FM and infrared hearing systems are common systems available for use. An FM system requires the speaker to wear or speak near a microphone so that a hearing impaired person can hear them talk on headsets attached to a receiver.
An infrared system converts light to electrical signals and then into an audio signal, similar to a hearing loop. But it also requires a headset and receiver.
Typically, a person with a hearing disability will have to check out an assistive device from an office, or call ahead to make arrangements. The devices may not always be in working order, or run out of batteries during use.
Dr. Estes told dailyRx that these systems are often underused. “Most hard of hearing people don't want to advertise that they have hearing loss,” she said. “The nice thing about a loop is that the patient can go into a facility and be piped in with no additional equipment.”
Where It Works
Hearing loops are common in Europe, and have been in use since the late 1980's. Museums, performance spaces, churches, transportation hubs, and even taxis are looped.
Dr. David Myers, a psychology professor at Hope College in Michigan, is hearing impaired and first experienced a loop system in Scotland’s Iona Abbey. The sound that reverberated off the echoey walls of the old building created a befuddling cloud of sound, and Dr. Myers said he couldn't hear a thing.
But when his wife noticed a blue and white sign with an ear symbol that indicated the Abbey was looped. Dr. Myers switched on the telecoil on his hearing aid, and the fog of sound was transformed into crystal clear speech, as if a voice was speaking directly into his ear.
“The delicious sound (is this what others hear?) put me on the verge of tears,” he wrote in an article for the Association of Psychological Science. Dr. Myers brought looping back with him to America – and eventually looped his entire community.
Cheri Perazzoli, a resident of Seattle, had a similar experience when she was visiting Dublin. As her friends spoke with an agent behind a ticket booth, she suddenly realized she was hearing the thick Irish accent clearly in her head.
Perazzoli's telecoil was switched on, and she soon saw the blue and white sign. She's now working on a campaign to install hearing loops across Seattle.
Loops can be installed in public spaces like libraries, performance halls, and museums. But they're also useful in commercial buildings like banks, medical offices, and pharmacies.
Dr. Estes mentioned the problematic nature of pharmacists explaining medical instructions to hard of hearing people. Certain information is by law confidential, but pharmacists end up yelling instructions to the entire store as they try to communicate with a hearing impaired patient.
A loop could make even a pharmacist's whisper understandable to a patient.
Making Hearing Accessible
Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) covers hearing impairment, many people with hearing loss find that the country is not accommodating to their disability.
“By the Americans with Disabilities Act, a person in a wheelchair is able to go and enjoy the theater, but a person with hearing impairment is not able to enjoy it as much,” Dr. Estes said.
It costs a few hundred to a few thousand dollars to loop a facility. Dr. Estes and other audiologists are working with the ADA to advocate for more hearing loops – and to open up a world of hearing to people who have difficulty making sense of sound.
She recommends that people with hearing aids ask their audiologists if they have telecoils. To find out more about hearing loops, visit hearingloops.org.