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Phones for the Hearing Impaired

Age related hearing loss is something most of us don’t want to think about, and yet it will happen to quite a few of us as we get older.

Mild hearing loss might at first go unnoticed, but missing the odd word or two when on the phone could be the first sign perhaps increasingly, you need to ask the person speaking at the end of the line to speak up.

The sound quality from a conventional corded type phone or a mobile is often quite poor and although digital exchanges have made hissing and crackling, as if someone is frying an egg on the line, a thing of the past; the higher audio frequencies are limited. This can sometimes make it quite difficult to distinguish F’ and S’ type sounds for a hearing person let alone someone with a hearing loss.

There is a certain irony that Alexander Graham Bell devoted a considerable part of his life looking at ways to improve communication for deaf and hard of hearing people and yet he is best remembered for inventing the telephone!

Nonetheless, if Bell were alive today, he no doubt would have been delighted to see that many of today’s modern telephones have features that make them more accessible for people with mild to moderate hearing loss: extra loud ringers, incoming voice amplification, visual call indicators and perhaps most important of all, hearing aid compatibility.

Hearing aid compatible telephones have recently become a hot topic in the United States. A tiny coil of wire inside most hearing aids, called a Telecoil, (or T switch) acts as a receiver that will pick up signals directly from audio loop systems in theater houses, cinemas and elsewhere. Generally, this works better than trying to pick up the sound directly through the hearing aids built-in microphone, which is really only designed for conversation at close range. Audio loop technology, which has been around for at least thirty years, works well in telephones too. The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) telecommunication regulations now require that most telephones in the US, including mobile handsets, work with hearing aids.

In 2007, one manufacturer decided not to make their phone hearing aid compatible; word quickly spread amongst the deaf community, culminating in the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) filing a formal complaint to the FCC. However, a clause in the regulation states that manufacturers with two or less phones on the market are exempt. But is this a poor excuse? If a manufacturer has only one phone on the market – especially if it is a popular model, why shouldn’t it work with hearing aids? Hearing aid compatible telephones can be made easily and cheaply. All the manufacturer has to do is fit an inductive coupler’, a small loop of wire, into the earpiece of the telephone handset. This simple low-cost component provides a localized signal that the hearing aid can pick up.

Mobile phones can be trickier because they emit radio signals that can be picked up by some hearing aids; and the wearer can experience an unpleasant, sometimes loud buzzing sound as a result. However, mobile phone manufacturers are now producing models that give out less interference, plus modern digital hearing aids have better immunity.

For those with severe hearing loss there is an alternative to the telephone; a textphone, also known as a Minicom, looks a bit like a computer. It has a keyboard for typing outgoing text messages and a display screen for receiving them; it allows people with severe and profound hearing loss to communicate over phone lines. Text communication is very much in vogue these days, we all use mobile phones to send short text messages back and forth. For people that rely on text communication, technology has leveled the playing field rather than created barriers! Videophones are a more recent example. Sign language users use them to make visual’ phone calls, and with technology improving all the time, lip reading by phone is now a reality too.

By providing communication solutions to the very people Alexander Graham Bell originally set out to help over a hundred years ago the telephone and its related infrastructure has certainly has gone full-circle.

* As with anything medical, if you have any concerns regarding your hearing, you should seek the advice of your doctor or a health care professional.

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