LEXINGTON Although hearing aid technology has significantly improved since digitalization in the 1990s, there continue to be situations that challenge and frustrate hearing-impaired listeners. Places of worship, airports, theaters, ticket booths and movie theaters tend to be extremely difficult listening environments, often creating such an unsatisfying experience that the hearing-impaired person avoids these situations entirely.
If hearing aids are so advanced, why do they continue to have problems with reproducing a clear sound in certain environments? The answer is in the microphone. In large more reverberant rooms, the sound is degraded before it reaches the hearing aid microphone. The hearing aid can only reproduce the input provided. If the microphone detects a degraded signal, it will amplify a degraded signal sometimes making speech totally unintelligible.
With the passage of the Americans with Disability Act, many churches, theaters and other large venues have installed wireless transmitters that use infrared and FM technology to send the signal to the hearing-impaired patrons. These are effective means of transmitting speech clearly but require special headsets be checked out and worn, and experience has shown people are reluctant to use this technology. Not only is there a stigma and hassle attached to checking out the conspicuous headsets, but facility owners find they can’t be used with existing amplification systems and require a separate installation for each setting.
Fortunately there has been a resurgence of a seasoned but effective technology called hearing loops. Hearing loops are like Wi-Fi for your hearing aid. They turn the hearing instruments into wireless speakers for a PA system or television set. A hearing loop works by wirelessly transmitting the signal from a PA system or television, through a magnetic field, and to the small copper telecoil in the hearing aid. The telecoil picks up the signal from the magnetic field and converts it into an acoustic signal in the hearing aid. Because the signal is never airborne, it provides a clear, intelligible sound with no interference from background noise and no degradation of the signal.
Since approximately 60–70% of hearing aids come standard with a telecoil, the telecoil need only to be activated and programmed by an audiologist. Anytime the hearing aid user is in a facility which is looped, the telecoil can be accessed by pushing a button at the back of the hearing aid.
There are many advantages of a hearing loop over infrared and FM systems. First, most hearing aids are equipped with a microphone plus telecoil setting enabling one to hear the people nearby while simultaneously receiving direct input from the PA system. With infrared and FM headsets, only the input from the PA system is received sometimes making it difficult to communicate with those around you. Additional benefits of hearing loops include no extra equipment to be checked out, the telecoil can be utilized in any looped venue, it is simple to access, hygienic and provides clear, intelligible sound. In the event there is no telecoil in your hearing aid or one does not wear a hearing aid, just like FM and infrared, listening devices are still available for check out.
In 2010, the Hearing Loss Association of America and the American Academy of Audiology announced a joint collaborative public education campaign “Get in the Hearing Loop.” The campaign aims to enlighten and excite hearing aids users, as well as audiologists and other professionals who dispense hearing aids regarding telecoils and hearing loops and their unique benefits. As a result of the campaign, Michigan, Wisconsin, New York, California and North Carolina have installed a significant number of loops. This list of places looped is long and varied but include small, portable loops in places such as drive-thru windows, check-out counters, taxis and tour buses. Large, permanent loops tend to be installed in theaters and churches, and my hope is for Kentucky to be the next state with a growing loop network.
In venues where the hearing loop is installed, audio signals are never airborne. They are transmitted wirelessly to a hearing aid telecoil, which creates a clear and intelligible sound. There is no background noise or degradation of the sound.
Ann Rhoten, AuD, CCC/A, is the owner of Kentucky Audiology and Tinnitus Services and specializes in the treatment and management of tinnitus and sound tolerance issues. You may reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (859) 554-5384.