January 23, 2018

Assistive Technology & UD, Part III: Hearing Loss


My grandfather, a Russian immigrant, had diminishing hearing as he aged. As a lover of gadgets and an early adopter of technology, he soon fitted himself with a modern (1960’s) electronic hearing aid. He had a microphone concealed as a tie pin, a gizmo in his pocket, and a loudspeaker in his ear. He also loved to haggle. It wasn’t long before his hearing aid became a strategic bargaining device.

Favored for his haggling and personal amusement was Tiffany on Fifth Avenue. This was a particular challenge as Tiffany’s doesn’t haggle. That didn’t stop him. In addition to his patience and fine negotiation skills, he would also turn down the volume on his hearing aide. On more than one occasion, he walked out on an infuriated salesman who in exasperation and exhaustion dropped the price only to have this well attired gentleman smile and decline the sale. It’s good to know that my grandfather wasn’t fettered by hearing loss and instead found ways to have fun.

In the United States, there are thirty million people classified as hard of hearing. This doesn’t include diminished hearing as a result of aging, presbycusis. It is estimated that about 35% of people ages 65-75 are in this category. Hearing loss is quite different from vision loss and not for the obvious reasons. With vision loss one loses the world of things, with hearing loss one looses the world of people. Hearing loss has the unfriendly companion of isolation and with that, a missed social life.

Fortunately there are growing means by which hearing loss can be remediated: devices, technology, and universal design. Devices are usually worn by the user. Technology advances the ways hearing loss can be managed. Universal design makes more places accessible to more people. The new Yankee Stadium demonstrates all three.

The device is a hearing aid with a telecoil (think of the telecoil as like an antenna). The telecoil, or t-coil, can work with a variety of compatible systems such as radios, TV’s, MP3 players, phones and public address systems. The user can switch inputs between an ambient sound mic and the t-coil pick-up. In a public space full of ambient noise, the t-coil makes it possible to block out or reduce the background noise in order to tune in to a specific broadcast.

The assistive technology is the AFIL, the audio-frequency induction loop. This is the system in a public space which communicates with the t-coil enhanced hearing aid. These systems are more common in Europe for two reasons: 1) hearing aids are covered by health insurance so more people have and wear them; and, 2) their disability legislation requires the AFIL systems in more places.

The universal design component is the increase in which this technology is made common. At Yankee Stadium, this system means being able to hear the game, not just a lot of fans. In Europe it is used in even more places making it easier to handle transactions such as buying a train ticket, talking to a taxi driver or listening in a court room.

Assistive technology and universal design are increasing hearing opportunities at a rapid rate. Spin-offs find wider audiences such as noise canceling headphones, increasing miniaturization and sound identification. For practical solutions to personal concerns, see an audiologist. For those not ready for a hearing aid, consider a few personal safety devices that augment audio warnings with visual or vibration warnings. This includes smoke, fire and carbon monoxide detectors, phones and doorbells. When traveling, check with your airline and hotel provider as they often have special kits with specialized safety equipment available for your use.

And, if you have your own fun stories, like my Russian grandfather, add a comment!


Six Part Assistive Technology Series:

    Assistive Technology & UD, Part I: What Is It – 9/13/10

    Assistive Technology & UD, Part II: Physical – 9/20/10

    Assistive Technology & UD, Part III: Hearing Loss – 9/27/10

    Assistive Technology & UD, Part IV: Vision Loss – 10/4/10

    Assistive Technology & UD, Part V: Communication, Intellect & Development – 10/11/10

    Assistive Technology & UD, Part VI: Conclusion – 10/18/10