IN THE LOOP: An induction loop system, also called a "hearing loop," captures electromagnetic waves produced by a microphone, PA system or telephone receiver and broadcasts these signals directly to the hearing aid in a person's ear, provided that hearing aid is equipped with a tiny copper telecoil wire that can pick up the signal. Image: IMAGE COURTESY OF HEARINGLOOP.ORG
Whereas standard behind- and in-the-ear hearing aids work well in relatively quiet, more intimate settings, these devices often lose their effectiveness in larger, public spaces where background noise puts the hard of hearing at a disadvantage. Although the technology to solve this problem—induction-loop systems that broadcast sound directly to hearing aids and cochlear implants—has been available for years, implementation has lagged, advocates say, because not enough is being done to promote their use.
An induction-loop system, also called a "hearing loop," captures electromagnetic waves produced by a microphone, public address system or telephone receiver and broadcasts these signals directly to the hearing aid in a person's ear, provided that it is equipped with a tiny copper telecoil wire that can pick up the signal. (Hearing loops can also broadcast signals to cochlear implants, which are surgically implanted electronic devices that bypass damaged or nonworking parts of the inner ear and directly stimulate the auditory nerve.) A hearing loop could be as small as a piece of wire worn around the neck (called a neck loop) or a large as a ring of cable placed around the perimeter of a room or space.
Normally, a hearing aid captures sound with its microphone then amplifies this sound for the wearer, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America. A hearing aid equipped with a telecoil can cut through ambient noise by shutting off the normal microphone, enabling the wearer to tune in directly to the sounds being broadcast. Telecoils can also pick up magnetic signals emitted by landline telephones, which means someone wearing a telecoil-equipped hearing aid can set the phone receiver down and still hear what the person on the other end of the line is saying. Most cell phones are not compatible with hearing aids, although some are equipped with Bluetooth that can wirelessly pick up sounds from Bluetooth-enabled cell phones. (A downside to Bluetooth is its power consumption, which greatly cuts down on a hearing aid's battery life.)
Telecoils work somewhat like Wi-Fi for hearing aids, enabling them to serve as customized, wireless loudspeakers, says David Myers, a psychology professor at Hope College in Holland, Mich., and creator of HearingLoop.org, a Web site that advocates for the technology.
Hearing aid–makers are increasingly equipping their devices with telecoils. More than 60 percent of hearing aids come with telecoils, up from 37 percent in 2001, according to a study in the April 2008 issue of The Hearing Journal (.pdf).
Still, although there are about 36 million Americans with hearing loss, says Myers (himself hearing impaired), hearing-loop technology has not been as widely embraced in the U.S. as it has in other regions of the world, particularly in northern Europe. Myers first became aware of the technology more than a decade ago while worshipping in Scotland's Iona Abbey, where the building's poor acoustics prevented him from clearly hearing the service being performed. At his wife's prompting, Myers switched on his hearing aid's "T" (for telecoil) setting to see what would happen. "The sudden clarity was overwhelming," he adds, "an experience that I have since had in countless other British venues, from auditoriums to cathedrals to the backseats of London and Edinburgh taxis."
Since then, Myers and others have worked to introduce the technology to an increasing number of venues in the U.S. Myers alone went to hundreds of western Michigan venues, including 40 rooms in Grand Rapids's DeVos Place Convention Center and both concourses and all gate areas of that city's Gerald R. Ford International Airport (.pdf).