What is a hearing loop and how does it work?
In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates that all public places in which audible communication is integral to the space are required to provide an assistive listening system, except for places of worship since they are typically exempt from the ADA. However, states like California and other local city governments have enacted local ordinances that model their accessibility requirements after the ADA. Most venue operators consider making accommodations for individuals with physical disabilities a priority, but hardly ever is assistive listening technology on top of their minds, as this disability is largely invisible.
Approximately 23% of the U.S. population over the age of 12, more than 60 million people, are affected by hearing loss in at least one ear. Despite legislation and available technology to provide access, many individuals find their communication needs to be misunderstood and unaddressed. Consequently, they may become isolated, not seeing the point in attending an event in which they cannot hear or fully participate. As often happens, they significantly cut back on attendance, reducing audience sizes at performances, events, meetings, and religious services throughout our communities.
A telecoil or t-coil is a small coil of wire embedded in approximately 80% of all hearing aid models in the market today, independent of the age of the device. It receives the magnetic signal from a hearing loop and turns it back into audible sound, which is customized for the person’s individual pattern of hearing loss.
However, the t-coil feature needs to be programmed into the hearing aid by the user’s hearing professional. It is important that audiologists and hearing aid dispensers educate their clients about this feature being available and how to use it. Several states have incorporated laws to require these steps from hearing professionals. Since it is possible that the feature has not been programmed at the time of purchase, the only reliable way to find out whether someone’s hearing device is compatible with a hearing loop is to ask the person they purchased the device from.
Hearing loops have almost infinite applications. They can be used in theaters, auditoriums, places of worship, classrooms, ticket counters, at grocery counters, drive-thru windows, banks, doctor’s offices, pharmacies, and even at home with the TV. Most are found in public venues where large groups congregate to hear presentations or entertainment.
While we find that places of worship, universities, and government buildings are adopting the technology at rapid rates, it seems that movie theaters, music festivals, and concert venues are slower to install hearing loops because these venues are generally viewed as spaces for entertainment, not for accessing information. Furthermore, organizations tend to not recognize their lack of accessibility, since hearing loss is not a visible limitation and many affected individuals do not speak up about their needs for accommodations due to the stigma that’s still associated with this disability.
Once the t-coil feature has been programmed into the hearing device, all the user needs to do is switch their hearing aid or cochlear implant to the “T”, telecoil, or hearing loop program.
In general, venues equipped with a hearing loop system have portable receivers available to borrow. These bodypack receivers typically have a 3.5 mm (⅛ inch) headphone output and can either be used with headphones provided by the venue or with the user’s own headphones, earphones, or earbuds. This makes for a less convenient way to access the sound from a hearing loop and the sound is not custom-tailored to suit the individual’s pattern of loss, but it still provides a world of difference in terms of comprehension and enjoyment.
Until recently, telecoil-enabled hearing devices and portable receivers were the only two ways to utilize a hearing loop. Now, thanks to the innovation of OTOjOY, a third solution has become available. OTOjOY LoopBuds are earbuds equipped with a telecoil that allow users to access the sound from a hearing loop with their smartphone. Since high cost and stigma are significant factors in deterring individuals from purchasing and using hearing aids, OTOjOY LoopBuds provide an affordable, stigma-free solution to give users access to an enhanced listening experience and and the added ability to customize their sound with the LoopBuds smartphone app.
In October 2017, the 4th International Accessibility Conference on Hearing Loops and Hearing Technology was held in Berlin, Germany and was attended by more than 300 industry experts. A particular focus of the conference was placed on the future of hearing loop technology. The conference organizers concluded that currently, there is no new technology on the horizon that is as user-friendly, universal, cost-effective, and efficient in creating equal access for individuals with hearing loss.
Other wireless technologies are prone to issues, including delay, compatibility, battery drain, and poor connectivity. Per Kokholm Sorensen, Director of Research & Development for Widex, German hearing loop engineer Hannes Seidler, psychology professor and hearing loop advocate David Myers, as well as Cynthia Compton-Conley, former audiology professor and one of the leading authorities on assistive listening technology in the United States, have all concluded that it will be a long time before Bluetooth or any other alternative wireless connectivity can match the virtues of hearing loops.