Too Many People with Hearing Loss Miss Out

Hearing loop and telecoil technology can make a world of difference in a large meeting room.

Hearing loss is an invisible disability that impacts daily communication for one in seven people. That number increases to one in three at age 65. Hearing aids have improved dramatically in the last decade, but they are still just that—aids. Those with hearing loss will hear better with hearing aids than without them, but they will still have trouble hearing in many situations.

Hearing aids work remarkably well for one-on-one conversations, but they don't restore hearing like glasses restore vision. Many people continue to struggle to hear and understand in church, at the theatre, or in meetings. Travel quickly turns into a stressful and frustrating experience if you miss an announcement for boarding your plane or get off at the wrong station.

For activities like these, hearing assistive technology beyond hearing aids is necessary. Many of those with hearing loss can't hear in loud and crowded situations because they haven't heard about assistive technology or how they could benefit from it. Perhaps they see someone with a headset at the theatre, but don't know where to find one.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates that venues  provide hearing assistive technology and auxiliary services for patrons who are deaf or hard of hearing. Yet, many individuals with hearing loss do not consider themselves disabled. Many are unaware that the ADA includes hearing loss and guarantees their rights to communication access.

Many miss out because the availability of the technology and services is not publicized by the venues that are required to provide them. Signs in Puget Sound theatres, concert halls, and cinemas are not large enough, strategically placed, or prominent enough to alert people to the availability of assistive devices.

Others miss out because front line staff have not been trained to serve customers with the invisible disability of hearing loss. They don't know what hearing assistive technology is, how it works, or how to assist a user. Many don't realize just how dramatic a difference in clarity and understanding assistive technology can make for someone with hearing loss.

If the sign is noticed, and a headset or other accommodation is requested and acquired, the batteries are often dead, or the user has to take out their hearing aids in order to use the device. When equipment can't be located, isn't charged, or fails to operate well, people are missing out. And they'll continue to miss out, because if the promised service fails to deliver, people won't keep asking for it.

This sign indicates that a hearing loop is installed. Switch your hearing aid to telecoil.

Telecoil Technology
Many also miss out because their hearing care provider may not have counseled them about the most cost-effective system with the best sound reproduction—the telecoils in their hearing aids. Telecoils are small wire receivers inside most hearing aids. Telecoils pick up a magnetic signal and turn it into sound that is then corrected to correspond to that individual's audiogram pattern by modern digital hearing aids and sent on to the brain.

A study by Mark Ross and Carren Stika found that less than 50 percent of hearing care providers counsel their clients on the use of the telecoils in their hearing aids, and less than a third of providers counsel their clients on the availability and use of hearing assistive technologies that can supplement their hearing aids. Successful hearing aid use takes time and effort and it requires a variety of tools and strategies.

To combat this pervasive problem the American Academy of Audiology, in cooperation with the Hearing Loss Association of America, recently launched "Get in the Loop," a national campaign to raise the awareness of hearing care professionals and those with hearing loss to the benefits of hearing loops, telecoils, and assistive technology in general. The Sertoma clubs have joined in this national effort to raise awareness. In order to ensure counseling on hearing loops and telecoils, some states have enacted laws mandating such counseling by hearing care providers. Washington is not among them.

Portable hearing loops are also available.

Hearing Loops
Originally designed to improve telephone communication, advances in telecoil and hearing loop technology have yielded a shift from serving the individual with hearing loss to serving the public with hearing loss. Telecoils and hearing loops are the ticket to connecting people with hearing loss to their communities. They replace the headsets used in FM or infrared assistive listening systems with the individual's own hearing aids, doubling their utility.

Public settings are truly where hearing loops shine. Looped transportation stations and looped public vehicles provide clarity and understanding of the critical information that enables people to access public transportation independently, whether they are going to work, the doctor,  the museum, or around the world.

Imagine how much easier it would be to communicate at a registration desk if CART was available.

Communication Access Real Time Technology (CART)
Caption technology, like CART, is an auxiliary service that immediately provides captions to a speaker. Captioning is extremely useful to many users, not just those with hearing loss. CART helps to clarify what is being said to everyone in the room, regardless of how well they can hear.

With current technology, applications and software can make captions available in almost any situation, anywhere in the world—even in other languages! Adding captions is especially easy if there is any sort of screen (video, PowerPoint, etc.), and captions can greatly increase the number of people who can hear and understand what is being said.

A Call to Action
Instead of forcing the hearing loss community to try to figure out what is going on—often leaving them in the dark—communities need to start providing complete communication access to everyone. Providing captioning at meetings, graduations, and lectures ensures that the entire audience is included.

When designing a space or planning an event, we need to strive for universal access—so that all members of our communities can attend and participate. This means that, in addition to ramps and elevators, we need assistive listening technology like hearing loops and captions, and signage that makes it clear that the service is available. This is a goal that we can achieve, but in order to do so, we need to change the way we think about communication and hearing access.


Imagine how much easier it would be to understand a presentation where CART is available

In Washington, we are working hard to implement the Get in the Loop campaign. In the 16 months since the debut of Let's Loop Seattle, the Hearing Loss Association of Washington has been instrumental in getting over 50 retirement communities, places of worship, meeting rooms, libraries, hearing care offices, arts venues, and auditoriums around Washington to install hearing loops. When someone with hearing loss visits one of those facilities, all they must do to hear is  push a button on their hearing aids to turn on the telecoil. There's no need to arrive early to have a front-row seat in order to hear the program, no need to take out hearing aids to use a headset, no need to plan ahead to request accommodation, no frustration with the accommodation not working—the venues with hearing loops just work.

Feeling left out of the conversation, many are reluctant to acknowledge and treat their hearing loss—many don't know what they are missing. Getting in the loop begins with starting a new conversation.

To create awareness, The Hearing Loss Association of Washington has been conducting outreach to demonstrate both CART captioning and hearing loops to the community. Members have engaged communities by requesting hearing assistive technology and auxiliary services (CART) for civic presentations. Announcements informing the audience a hearing loop is in use and to switch hearing aids to the T-coil setting delight those who  benefit and invite inquiry from others. Big screen projection of CART fills in the blanks or missed words for the whole audience, making us aware of what we are missing and serving to bring hearing loss out of the closet. With hearing loops and CART, both aural and visual hearing assistance can be delivered seamlessly, without stigmatizing the user, who may need either or both levels of assistance.

Support for the campaign has come from Washington State Office of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, which helped facilitate the installation of counter loops at the regional ODHH centers, and at two social service offices, and have collaborated on outreach and training. Support has also come from 4Culture, which has been tremendously helpful as we work to create universal access to our arts communities.

What can you do to help yourself and others experiencing hearing loss? Social change requires grassroots action. Far too many people with hearing loss who are missing out need to speak up. To make change happen, ask our city leaders to install hearing loops at town halls and provide CART at public meetings and presentations.

Ask our senior centers or others who operate community spaces to install loops so we can hear. Demand that the inadequate systems installed 20 years ago be replaced with modern, user-friendly technology. Ask city councils to loop their meeting rooms and to provide CART for community events.

Insist cinemas keep their equipment clean, charged, and in working order; that they train their staff; and that they post large, prominent signs announcing the availability of hearing technology. Attend a meeting of the local HLA-WA and learn more about how to live well with hearing loss.

If those with hearing loss want to hear, it's time to speak up!

Resources for Assistive Hearing Technology

Find a captioned movie near you

Collaborative for Communication Access via Captioning

For businesses friendly (and not yet friendly) to people with hearing loss

Hearing Loss Association of America, Washington Chapter

Hearing, Speech, and Deafness Center
Offers many ALDS and captioned telephones. Services include a contract for CART Services for Seattle residents

Let's Loop Seattle

Washington State Office of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing
Comprehensive resource guide to services, including a contract for CART services available to agencies

Contributor Cheri Perazzoli is a vice-president of HLAA-WA and founder of Let's Loop Seattle. Her article is adapted, with permission, from one written by Stephen O. Frazier, Certified Hearing Loss Support Specialist, Chapter Coordinator of HLAA-Albuquerque.