At the Seattle Repertory Theatre, dozens of patrons tell us that they've heard better than they have in years—sometimes better than ever—because of a hearing loop. All across the Puget Sound area, hearing loops are reconnecting people with their jobs, communities, transportation, and civic lives. Other places like Sarasota, Wisconsin, and New Mexico tell us a similar story: Hearing loops and telecoils change lives.
Yet many members of the Hearing Loss Association of America-Washington State (HLAA-WA) have said that their audiologist never told them they had a telecoil in their hearing aid. Or that they were never aware of the hearing loop logo—blue ear symbol with the letter “T.” Or that they weren't informed how and where to ask for hearing access and hearing loops. Worst of all, some patients have been told that hearing loops are yesterday's technology.
As someone who relies on hearing aids for daily communication and whose life has been tremendously enriched by hearing loops, I'm baffled by this gap in information. Audiologists certainly care deeply about their patients and wish the best for them. Yet it's consumers and patients who are leading this drive for hearing loops—often with little support from the hearing care community.
Do audiologists believe Bluetooth is the answer? For example, Bluetooth can be programmed as a one-to-many device. However, Bluetooth is generally designed to connect with iPads, phones, and computers, not to large-venue sound systems. A clip-on microphone can send sounds via Bluetooth to a hearing aid—but only when the wearer is within 30 feet. In a large venue, every person with hearing loss would need to give his/her microphone to the speaker and sit within range. With the assumption that 20 percent of people at any given event wear hearing aids, this means a lot of microphones are needed. Bluetooth is simply not a good choice for use in large spaces.
Are audiologists waiting for a new and better technology? This isn't likely to happen anytime soon; most technologies provide one-to-one communication assistance, not one-to-many. Near-field and far-field technologies simply operate differently and have different limitations. And even if a new technology is introduced within the next 10 years, hearing loops remain the best current solution for universal hearing access.
Perhaps audiologists are simply unaware of the increasing number of venues that are now hearing-accessible to someone with a telecoil. Ten years ago, only a few venues were looped. But today, in Seattle alone, there are dozens of places where someone can hear an A-list author, celebrity, world-class theatre performance, church service, or civic meeting through a loop.
Since telecoils are needed to access loops, FM, and infrared assistive listening systems, the more that audiologists educate their patients on their telecoils, the better that hearing aids will help patients communicate. People with hearing aids need communication training in several settings—when speaking to a friend or two, on the phone, with a laptop or iPad, and in public spaces. It seems that more audiologists are educating patients on the first three settings; public venue access gap remains.
The U.S. lags behind Europe in loop installation. In the UK, just six manufacturers make hearing aids, and nearly all have telecoils. Although telecoils has been in American hearing aids for years, manufacturers began using them less often to promote proprietary technology—hence the gap. Today, telecoils are standard in most American hearing aids, and advances in engineering and installation have made loop installations more effective in the U.S.
Over and over, we hear that loops empower people. With the “Get in the Hearing Loop!” campaign and its many offshoots, including Loop Washington, we're witnessing a true grassroots movement to ensure people with hearing loss can participate like everyone else, seamlessly and discretely. The support and participation of audiologists could definitely help this movement take a huge leap forward in improving public hearing access.
As our health care system changes and our population ages, it seems more vital than ever that hearing care providers, hearing loss support organizations, and patients come together. The drive and passion are there. The technology is there. Advocates from all walks of life are there. What can we do to unite and make all our spaces inclusive, hearing-friendly, and welcoming to everyone?