Helping Those With Hearing Loss Get In The Loop

A simple technology called a magnetic hearing loop allows wearers of specially outfitted hearing aids to get a wireless signal transmitted directly to their ear. The technology transforms garbled PA sounds into clear announcements. Hearing-impaired user David Myers explains.

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IRA FLATOW, Host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Do you ever walk through a train station or airport in Europe or visited a cathedral there? You may have noticed one of the many blue signs of a human ear with the words hearing loop installed written underneath.

The signs are a cue to the deaf or to hearing impaired, flip a little switch on your hearing aid and you can tune it to specially broadcast announcements sent directly into your ear, kind of like Wi-Fi for hearing aids.

For those with hearing problems, it can make hearing a totally different experience. The technology is relatively cheap, it's simple, but even though an estimated 36 million Americans have some level of hearing loss, it doesn't seem to have caught on here in the U.S., at least not yet.

Joining me now to tell us more about hearing loops and how they work is a man who is pioneering an effort to get them installed everywhere. David Myers is a professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He is also a loop hearing system user. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Myers.

DAVID MYERS: Tell us, why is it called a loop? Is there a real loop in there?

MYERS: There actually is a real loop. The system consists of an amplifier, which connects to some sound source, could be a home TV or an auditorium PA system or perhaps a microphone behind a ticket window, and then there is indeed a wire loop that goes out from that amplifier and which transmits a magnetic signal.

And that signal can be picked up either by a portable receiver and headset or, more commonly, by an inexpensive little magnetic sensor called a telecoil that's tucked inside one's hearing aid or cochlear implant.

So just to give you an example, right here in my Hope College office, I've got an amplifier that takes the signal off my telephone. A wire encircles me underneath the carpet, and because I've activated the telecoils in my hearing aids, voila, I can hear your questions broadcast by both my hearing aids.

When you're talking, I could put the phone on the desk, walk around the office, and I'd hear you just perfectly clearly through both hearing aids, which have become in-the-ear loudspeakers for me.

FLATOW: Let me give my listeners a little bit of a comparison of what it sounds like without the loop and with the loop. Let's go first to a sound without the loop.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible).

FLATOW: Now, that's what it sounds like in a cathedral, right?

MYERS: Yeah, and that's much like what I experienced about 10 years ago, when I first visited the Iona Abbey off the west coast of Scotland. That sound was indecipherable to me after reverberating off those 800- year-old stone walls.

FLATOW: And here's what it would sound like if you had the loop installed.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

Unidentified Woman: We few, we happy few, we band of brothers...

FLATOW: What a difference. Wow.

MYERS: And indeed what a difference it was for me when my wife noticed the hearing assistance sign on the wall and nudged me to experiment with these telecoils in these new hearing aids I had. It was like - it was just an incredible kind of transforming experience for me. All of a sudden this clear voice was talking from the center of my head.

FLATOW: And you didn't realize that your hearing aid even had the little coil in it.

MYERS: I think my audiologist had mentioned it to me because I did know that these telecoils have another very important use, which is why really the Hearing loss Association of America recommended them for all hearing aids now, and that is that unbeknownst to most of your listeners, I suspect, all land-line telephones in the United States and now select models of cell phones broadcast not only sound but also a magnetic signal.

And these hearing-aid compatible phones allow me to turn on a telecoil in one of my hearing aids, put this phone up - the hearing aid now becomes an ear plug, and it receives a stronger, clearer signal. The same magnetic induction technology that's used with hearing loops, it also works for a telephone conversation.

FLATOW: Now, you were saying that all over Europe they have these loops at airports and other kinds of places.

MYERS: Oh, yeah. In the United Kingdom and the Nordic countries, they're just everywhere. They're in the back seats of all London taxis, which have a little microphone embedded in the dashboard in front of the driver; at 18,000 post offices in the U.K.; at most churches and cathedrals; and you just see them everywhere.

FLATOW: And why don't we have them here then?

MYERS: Well, you know, we've gone with a different technology that's largely hearing-aid incompatible. It requires you to check out equipment. And if you put yourself in the position of a person with hearing loss, you're sitting in an auditorium or at worship, you're having trouble hearing - which of these two systems would you prefer?

Would you prefer to have to get up out of your seat, go locate, check out and wear some conspicuous equipment? Or would you prefer just to press a button and instantly have your hearing aids become wireless loudspeakers delivering customized sound for your own needs?

It's the latter system that we're pushing for, a lot of us now in the United States, because it's much, much more likely to be used.

FLATOW: Is it hard to install such a system?

MYERS: It is a little harder and more costly to install because you've got to run the wire, and for that reason the installation does cost a little more, and many audio engineers therefore find it a little less convenient to install. But the cost per user turns out to be much, much less because you have so many more people using it.

FLATOW: It must, you know, be something that you're working very hard to get installed around the country.

MYERS: Oh, yeah. We're - you know, I created an informational website, hearingloop.org, and have written a couple dozen articles. But now there are some wonderful people all of the country.

Hearing Access Program in New York City has been instrumental in New York City Transit's installing hearing loops in the subway information booths, right underneath you. That's going on now.

A national service organization, Sertoma, is now promoting it through its 540 local clubs across America. Hearing loss groups in Central Wisconsin, in Arizona, Chicago, New Mexico, Silicon Valley, Florida are all promoting it, and the big new news is that the Hearing Loss Association of America, which is the national support and advocacy organization for people with hearing loss, and the American Academy of Audiology, have jointly launched an initiative to promote the transformation of American assistive listening towards this hearing aid compatible assistive listening.

FLATOW: Now, if I had a church, synagogue, any place I'd like to install one, what could I expect to have to pay for this?

MYERS: A small to medium-size congregation would typically be in the 2,000 to 8,000 dollar range, although that depends on whether it's a frame construction or has a lot of embedded steel in it.

FLATOW: And if you really had a big system, like a train station, it would cost significantly more, I imagine.

MYERS: Yeah, yes, and so, for example, Grand Rapids Airport cost - for the installation that covered both its concourses and all its gate areas, $137,000.

FLATOW: That's not a lot.

MYERS: No, and for the home TV loop systems - and these really work cool, by the way. I mean, they're like 140 to 300 dollars.

FLATOW: And it makes such a difference. Just - we have one more example of what kind of difference it could be, and this is really something you experience, and those of us who have some sort of - some sort of hearing loss - and who doesn't - here's an example of what Grand Rapids Airport sounds like before and after. Let's listen to before.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #3: That includes all bags off American Eagle Flight 4033, service from Chicago. If you do not see your baggage or just have some further questions, please see an agent at the American...

FLATOW: All right, that's before the loop and now after the loop.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

Man #1: That includes all bags off American Eagle Flight 4033, service from Chicago. If you do not see your baggage or just have some further questions, please see an agent at the American Eagle...

FLATOW: Wow, what a difference.

MYERS: Oh, and what a huge difference for anybody with hearing aids who really has hearing needs, because as I've waited for my delayed flights in Grand Rapids airport, I just activate my telecoil, and they become in-the-ear loudspeakers. I can hear those announcements as clearly as you could, Ira.

FLATOW: And so what kind of efforts are you making? Where do you go from here with this?

MYERS: Well, the push, really, is to try to encourage places of worship to adopt this, to educate audio engineers, architects and facilities planners and to educate hearing professionals themselves and the general public, and that's part of the push that's going to be going on this next year, culminating in a national conference a year from now, co-hosted by the Hearing Loss Association of America and the American Academy of Audiology.

FLATOW: Well, good luck to you.

MYERS: Thank you. Thank you very much. And anybody's welcome to visit hearingloop.org.

FLATOW: There you go, David Myers, professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, talking about the hearing loop.

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