Getting Hard of Hearing People “in the Loop”

Imagine yourself using a cassette recorder to tape your favorite radio program from across the room. Alas, when you play back the program the words are muffled and barely audible. Moreover, you have also taped the neighbor’s lawn mower, the kitchen dishes clanging, the dog barking. Next time you record the broadcast by jacking your recorder directly into the radio. Now you find the sound delightfully clear and without distracting noise. That contrast conveys what I, as one of America’s 28 million hard of hearing people, experienced the first time I enjoyed the full benefit of sound delivered via my hearing aid telecoils (T-coils).

I discovered this new joy of listening in Europe. It’s not that the technology is unknown here in America. I already knew that with a simple button push my hearing aids can shut off their microphones and receive, via the T-coil, the magnetic signal from any recently manufactured phone. Bingo! In a noisy setting, the hearing aids block room noise and the telephone broadcasts right to my eardrum.

Pretty nifty. But not nearly so nifty as what I first experienced two years ago in Scotland. With 300 others, I was worshiping within the high stone walls of the 800-year-old Iona Abbey. Amplified but reverberating off the Abbey’s hard surfaces, spoken words posed a challenge. Or so they did until my wife noticed a sign indicating an induction loop system (ILS)—which transmits from an amplifier through a mere wire surrounding the seating area. When I switched on my T-coil, the result was dramatic. The babble of people was replaced by the sweet harmonies of musicians playing in front of microphones across the Abbey. My mouth fell open. It was like listening to a CD over a headset.

When the service began, my astonishment increased. The leader’s words seemed to travel straight to the center of my head, her voice deliciously distinct. If I pulled the hearing aids out, her words went out of focus. Other hearing-aid settings boosted sound from distant loudspeakers, yet left me guessing at words.

Back in Scotland for a recent Royal Society of Edinburgh conference, I found myself surrounded by great minds with soft low voices. Alas, even when I positioned myself centrally I heard no more than half the discussion, and one hates to risk seeming a fool by jumping into a half-heard discussion. But the lecturers all had microphones, and I discovered (bless these Europeans) that the Royal Society’s lecture hall and seminar room have an ILS. Voila! The speakers’ voices became exquisitely clear. No reverberation. No amplified extraneous noise. No long-distance from the sound source. Loop systems effectively put my ears where I’d like them–in the microphone, a foot from the speaker’s mouth.

Venturing out to Usher Hall for a symphony concert, to St. Giles Cathedral for worship, and later up to St. Andrews where we worshiped at two local parishes, I found induction loops as common there as they are rare here in the USA. Indeed, the UK Disability Discrimination Act decrees that by the end of 2004 “Any business or organisation providing a product or service to the general public must have an Induction Loop System fitted wherever information is verbally provided,” which explains why many UK grocery stores now offer looped checkout lanes and many banks offer looped teller windows. The U.S. may lead Britain in some innovations (why are mixing hot/cold faucets still such a rarity in Scotland?), but we can also learn from them.

It’s not just the UK that leads America. Corresponding from Denmark, the Rev. Jan Gronborg Eriksen, president of Churchear, observed that

The sad thing about the American situation is that so few of your hearing aids [about 30 percent] have a T-coil…compared to 85% in my country. Here we can just install a good loop system in a theater or a church building or any meeting room (and we do–our churches are almost 100% covered now), and ask hard of hearing attendants to switch to T-position.

Understandably, induction loop systems are said to be undergoing a worldwide renaissance. Compared to infrared and FM systems they are less expensive, because they require no special receivers. (T-coils are now a standard feature on many new digital aids and add less than $100 to the cost of others.) They are an invisible solution to an invisible problem (we’re more likely to use a hearing assistance system that doesn’t require getting and wearing a klunky receiver and headset). Moreover, loop systems harness our hearing aid’s customized output.

Back in America, I’ve recently tried switching on my T-coil in churches, auditoriums, and theaters. The routine result is silence. At looped Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey I have enjoyed sparkling clear sound; at Washington’s National Cathedral I recently spent a long hour with hardly a clue what was being said. My college, like most, offers a sign language interpreter for major events. Such is wonderful for the third of a million Americans who are fluent in ASL but not for the many millions of hard of hearing. In hostile listening environments our common experience is frustration, embarrassment, isolation, and stress. Like Deaf ASL speakers, we, too, would welcome clear communication.

And why not? Induction loops are too affordable and effective not to be routinely installed. If churches, auditoriums, theaters, lecture halls, council chambers, courts, tour buses, and senior citizen centers would install loops as part of their PA systems, millions more people would be motivated to buy T-coil-equipped hearing aids and would find their lives enriched. Designated “counter loop” systems can also assist T-coil wearers as they stand on a pad in front of a ticket or teller window.

Looped TV rooms in homes and hotels can likewise broadcast sound directly into our hearing aids, minus background noise. I have looped my TV room, which means that with the mere flick of the hearing aid switch to telecoil (or telecoil plus mike if I want to hear conversation, too) I receive wonderfully clear sound. The possibilities are exciting and the lesson is simple: Where there are loudspeakers, let there be loops.

Hope College social psychologist David G. Myers is author of A Quiet World: Living with Hearing Loss (Yale University Press).