Different Hearing and Listening Assistive Systems
Assistive Listening Systems
These are systems to allow those with hearing loss and hearing aids to hear and understand a presenter clearly in a venue.
It is important to note that people with hearing aids cannot wear earphones with their hearing aids due to feedback.
The following assistive systems are described below:
- Bluetooth for Venues
- Hearing Loops and Telecoils
- FM Systems
- IR (Infra-Red) Systems
It is all about access to communication
Recently, the question was asked in a meeting why we keep talking about the need for telecoils in hearing aids and cochlear implants and the installation of hearing loops in venues when Bluetooth is in and telecoils and loops are out.
This is a very timely question as it talks to the confusion about current and future use of Bluetooth for those with hearing loss.
Hearing loops and telecoils work together anywhere in the world. They work in venues of any size, from TV dens in homes to convention halls. No synching needed.
While Bluetooth enables wireless connections between smartphones, hearing aids and other Bluetooth devices, even the latest version of this technology is not ready for public, large-scale signal broadcasting. That type of connectivity is still at least another 10 years out, according to technology specialists.
Loops and telecoils versus Bluetooth? At this time, these are two very helpful but different types of technology that coexist and complement each other.
Telecoils and Bluetooth can be installed together in the same hearing instruments, such as hearing aids and cochlear implants. They have their pros and cons but for the foreseeable future, we need both types of technology.
Because in the end, this is all about quality of life through equitable access to communication for those with hearing loss.
Bluetooth changes by leaps and bounds
In 2014, Bluetooth became a popular feature in hearing aids. People with hearing loss immediately appreciated having a direct, wireless, hands-free connections between their smartphones and their hearing instruments.
Nowadays, cochlear implants, earbuds and devices known as “hearables” are also routinely Bluetooth-enabled. Hearing devices can link up with laptops, TVs and computers and more. Accessories like Bluetooth adapters and streamers help bridge connectivity and compatibility issues.
Overall, Bluetooth is technology that allows wireless, one-on-one, short distance connections between different devices that recognize each other. So far, it is mostly helpful for private, personal use.
Enter Bluetooth LE 5.2
With its new coder-decoder (CODEC) LC3, Bluetooth LE 5.2 is fast becoming the new hype of the town. Within the next year or so, this technology will be found in smartphones, hearing instruments and other devices. While it offers some great advantages, converting to this latest Bluetooth version, or protocol will NOT be a simple software upgrade of existing technology.
And so, people must prepare themselves to invest in new phones and hearing instruments capable of handling this newest Bluetooth edition. In order to get ready for Bluetooth LE (LC3), manufacturers are busy adapting their device hardware and software. Particularly, instrument “chips” must be redesigned and re-licensed.
No overnight magic
Although hearing technology changes very fast, there will be no overnight magic. Getting high-quality, reliable Bluetooth connectivity in large spaces is a worldwide undertaking. Progress is expected within the next 10 years or so.
For the time being, the Bluetooth emphasis is still on short-distance connections. Even the latest Bluetooth LE 5.2 (LC3) version is not ready for public audio broadcast in big venues, such as places of worship, airports, lecture and convention halls etc. There are many kinks to be worked out.
Also, as venues must have hearing loops installed for telecoils to function, so venues must be equipped and readied for Bluetooth LE 5.2 (LC3) transmission and reception.
So far, Hearing loops and telecoils are our best and only bet for understanding speech in large, noisy places. And so, there is a continued need for this technology. It is ready and available to help us hear better NOW as well as throughout the lengthy Bluetooth LE 5.2 (LC3) transition period.
Where and How Can Hearing Loops Help?
Hearing loops are especially effective in large rooms or conference halls where audiences listen to speakers who talk into microphones. In such places, background noise, reverberations and echoing make the understanding of speech virtually impossible, particularly for those with hearing loss. Even hearing aids and cochlear implants may not be enough for understanding speech in these complicated sound environments.
Also, PA (Public Address) systems that are often turned up quite loud in an attempt to have people hear better can create distortion and end up overloading an already challenged hearing system. Louder is often not better, as those who are hard-of-hearing well know.
By listening through a hearing loop, the speaker’s voice that comes through the microphone is isolated. Background sound and echoes are greatly reduced, if not eliminated. Listening becomes easy. And that is why people love loops.
Therefore, Hearing Loops are of benefit in places of worship; museums; offices and conference rooms at work; presentation rooms in libraries; classrooms; auditoriums; convention halls and more. They also work well at information desks in loud places, such as train stations and airports. That said, hearing loops can also be installed for personal use in homes, dens and even in cars.
What is a Hearing Loop? What are Telecoils or T-Coils?
A hearing loop – also called induction or audio loop – is an assistive listening system that makes it easier for the hard-of-hearing to understand speech in background noise.
The “system” consists of the basic loop set-up (see description below) and tiny wireless antennas called T-coils or telecoils. These antennas are standard equipment in cochlear implants (CIs) and in most hearing aids that are roomy enough to accommodate them.
However, in order to be of use, Telecoils must be “activated” by the hearing specialist. They are tuned to the person’s hearing loss. To listen to a hearing loop, Telecoils have to be switched into the T position or mode.
Loop and Telecoils work as a Team. One without the other is useless for better hearing and understanding.
Parts of a Basic Hearing Loop Setup
A basic induction/hearing/audio loop has 3 parts:
- an electrical wire (the loop) that is installed around or throughout the area to be made accessible
- an electrical current amplifier (not voltage)
- a sound source, such as a microphone, TV, MP3 player etc.
The Basics of How a Hearing Loop Works
Linking the Loop and the Telecoils:
About the Diagram: Steps to hearing through the loop
- The loop wire is placed so that it surrounds the audience. People sit or stand inside the loop.
- The speaker speaks into the microphone. The microphone signal is received by the antenna of the wireless microphone receiver, which is connected to the electrical current amplifier. The loop wire also connects to the amplifier.
- As the speaker speaks, electricity flows in the loop wire. As electricity flows, a magnetic field forms around the loop wire. The intensity of the magnetic field determines how loud the loop sound signal is. It is adjusted by means of the current amplifier.
- In a “looped” environment, the user switches the hearing aids or cochlear implant (CI) into T-mode. This disengages the hearing aid or cochlear implant (CI) microphones and engages the telecoils.
- The Telecoils tap into the magnetic field and feed a sound–source-only signal to the hearing aids or CIs, which process the sound. The user can further adjust the volume on the hearing aids, CIs or loop receivers.
In other words: What goes into the microphone, such as the voice of a speaker, goes to the hearing instruments. As background noise and echoes are virtually eliminated, speech that could sound garbled becomes a lot clearer and understandable.
Hearing loops can also be connected to existing Audio-Visual (AV) systems so that all the information presented at a venue is accessible via telecoil. One might be thinking of video clips during a presentation.
Important Note: Upon leaving a looped venue, switch the hearing aids or cochlear implants OUT OF Telecoil mode and back into the Microphone mode. If left in the incorrect setting, people may think that their hearing devices do not work anymore because the microphone(s) remain shut off.
How Do I Know if a Venue Has a Hearing Loop?
Looped facilities usually display a sign similar to one of these – often Blue with White Lettering. Note the “T” stands for Telecoil.
Obstacles to Hearing Loops
As Assistive Listening Systems, Hearing Induction Loops provide greatly improved clarity of speech signals for those with hearing loss, especially in larger venues with background noise. However, it is not always possible to install hearing loops.
Interference from other electrical equipment within the venue itself or from heavy electrical service equipment outside may lead to intolerable buzzing and general noise in the loop. Construction that involves too much metal may drain off the loop signal. Also, as the sound signal from the hearing loop tends to “leak” outside of the looped space, privacy issues can make it impossible to have a hearing loop. Anybody with a telecoil could listen in. This would be the case in medical facilities and doctors’ offices, in law offices and in court rooms, for example.
There are ways of dealing with such leakage during the loop installation but it adds an extra level of complexity to the installation. Privacy issues must be addressed with the installer ahead of time.
If there are no loops, then what?
Access with Other Assistive Technology and Devices
Lately, there has been an explosion of Assistive Listening Devices (ALDs) and assistive technology. ALDs help those with hearing loss who do NOT have access to communication with hearing aids or cochlear implants. However, ALDs can also complement hearing devices.
For many people technology details and what-goes-with-what issues are hard to figure out, especially because of fast-paced changes in the technology world.
It is therefore always best to consult with a hearing specialist or a technology expert who understands the advantages and disadvantages of ALD use in those with hearing loss. Quality and prices of products can vary greatly. Be sure that your ALD or preferred technology is compatible with your hearing instruments and that it will be helpful in the venues that you want to access.
FM (Frequency Modulation) and IR (InfraRed) Systems
FM systems use Radio Waves for transmitting sound and IR Systems use Light Waves for transmitting sound.
FM Systems in Larger Venues
FM Listening systems are extremely popular. They are usually the more affordable choice. They are a mainstay for making venues like theaters, libraries, places of worship and conference and convention rooms accessible to those with hearing loss. They are also used extensively in school classrooms.
Frequency Modulation (FM) systems use radio waves to transmit sound signals wirelessly from a sound source, such as a speaker’s microphone, to the antenna in an FM receiver, which is carried by the listener. The FM receivers are the devices commonly distributed at churches, museums etc. for access to the venue.
The transmitted sound is heard through a headset that is plugged into the receiver. The listener can adjust the volume on the FM device. Less visible earbuds could also be used, but the plugs have to be compatible or match.
For people with hearing aids, the hearing aids have to be removed in order to listen to the sound. This is an obvious drawback.
However, in 2010, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) made some changes to the access standards for hearing aids with Telecoils by means of neckloops. This ADA action applies to FM and IR access receivers. Click on the above link to read more.
A couple of snippets from the text regarding hearing-aid compatible receivers:
“ The 2010 Standards at section 706 require assistive listening systems to have standard mono jacks and will require hearing-aid compatible receivers to have neck loops to interface with telecoils in hearing aids.
The changes also require at least twenty-five percent (25%), but no fewer than two, of the receivers to be hearing-aid compatible. Assembly areas served by an induction loop assistive listening system will not have to provide hearing-aid compatible receivers…”
So, when FM (or IR) receivers are supplied with a neckloop, hearing aids that contain Telecoils do NOT have to be taken out. The neckloop is plugged into the FM/IR receiver for wireless communication with the hearing aid telecoils. With the hearing aids in T-MODE, no “visible” headsets are needed.
FM for personal use
Smaller, portable and compact FM devices work well for one-on-one conversations, listening to TV and conversations in small groups. Some even work well in cars where conversation is always challenging for those with hearing loss.
These are all-in-one systems: Microphone, transmitter and receiver antenna are incorporated in one device. The listener hears through a headset or earbuds that plug into the device.
Check if the device can be made compatible with hearing aids that have telecoils by plugging into a neckloop. Also, make sure that the neckloop is acceptable for use with a specific FM device.
Infrared (IR) Access Systems
IR systems are used to make public venues like places of worship, conference and convention halls accessible to those with hearing loss. The technology is approved by the ADA.
In this case, Infrared is a way of “radiating” (transmitting) sound from a speaker’s microphone to IR sensors in the IR receiver carried by the listener. Sound hitches a ride on infrared light waves. The transmitted sound is heard through a headset or earbuds that are plugged into the receiver. The listener can adjust the volume on the IR device.
IR receivers can be made compatible with hearing aids that contain Telecoils by means of a neckloop. The neckloop plugs into the IR receiver and communicates wirelessly with the Telecoils that are in T-mode. This eliminates the need of “visible” headsets.
Many people prefer the quality and increased clarity of the IR signals over FM. Infrared signals do NOT cause privacy issues the way FM or loop signals do because infrared does NOT travel through walls or even people. If privacy is an issue, IR systems are the preferred way to go.
IR for Personal Use
Infrared devices are especially popular for watching TV. They work well as long as there is no signal interruption. This would happen if someone stepped in between the listener and the TV set.
Drawbacks for FM & IR
- Many people feel stigmatized by the “visible” headsets.
- People don’t like to go and “ask” for the devices
- Venue personnel often lack training and are of little help
- Devices are poorly maintained, such as batteries are not changed
- Many cite hygiene issues, such as obviously dirty devices. Are the headset pads ever replaced? Are the earbuds disposable?
- For those with hearing loss, hearing aids must be removed in order to listen to the transmitted sound.
- Although neckloops must be available, staff might not know what they are or where they are kept.
CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation)
The easiest way to visualize CART is to think of court reporting.
In this case, the exact spoken words from speakers or videos are transcribed in real time – as they are spoken- onto a screen for people to read. The transcriptionist is usually physically present at the venue but the readout can also be remotely streamed from an off-site location to an internet browser.
If CART is provided, try to sit closer to the screen for a better view.
CART is helpful for ALL attendees, no matter what their degree of hearing loss might be. Those with good hearing also often comment how much easier CART can make presentations, especially in larger spaces.
There are companies that provide this service and it is always a good idea to plan ahead because the transcription specialists are in high demand.
This is another way of transcribing the spoken information of TV broadcasts or movies onto the screen that is being watched. Captioning, as well as CART, depend on people not all talking at once.
Captions are also popular for telephone technology for those with hearing loss. Usually, an intermediary transcriptionist is involved but lately Voice Recognition Technology has also greatly improved. Voice recognition apps are also available for smartphones captions.