It seems everyone is talking about hearing loops these days thanks to a recent story in The New York Times. While the technology’s not new, the public’s heightened interest in it certainly is, and we applaud the Times for putting this topic in the spotlight.
Since the story appeared, our audiologists have been fielding questions from consumers about loops and, in some cases, clearing up misconceptions. To that end, here’s what Ellen Lafargue, Director of the Shelley and Steven Einhorn Audiology Center at the Center for Hearing and Communication, contributes to this important discussion.
Q: What exactly is a hearing loop?
Ellen Lafargue: The term refers to a type of assistive listening technology that’s available in certain theaters and public spaces. These are venues where the amplification benefits of hearing aids are often diminished by the presence of background noise. By physically encircling an area with a thin wire that emits an electromagnetic signal, an induction loop system eliminates background noise by transmitting sound from a microphone source directly to hearing aids. Loops are also compatible with cochlear implants.
Q: What has been the reaction to last month’s article in the NYT about hearing loops?
EL: It’s gotten a lot of attention and made people realize that loops exist. I think it’s important that people understand this technology is not new. It’s been used in some parts of the U.S. more than others. New York City, for example, has not been especially well-looped. Efforts in New York have focused more on getting infrared and FM systems into theaters and other public spaces.
Q: What are the advantages of using a loop?
EL: Once a loop has been installed, it’s available to everyone with an active tele-coil, a feature built into most cochlear implants processors and hearing aids. With other assistive listening systems you need to make headsets available for the audience and have enough on hand for everyone who needs them. Another advantage is that looping can aid communication in so many different kinds of places - auditoriums, subway stations, buses, taxis, banks. And it has in-home application since it can work with a television.
Q: What is a tele-coil?
EL: It’s what people call the telephone switch – a circuit inside the hearing aid that sets up a magnetic field that allows the hearing aid to communicate with sound coming from an audio system. Tele-coils are also compatible with most telephones on the market today.
Q: What percent of hearing aids have tele-coils?
EL: About 80% of today’s hearing aids have tele-coils available as an option. For it to function, an audiologist must activate it using programming software. At the Center for Hearing and Communication we always discuss this feature with our clients and determine together whether it should be activated or not.
Q: Are there disadvantages to using a loop?
EL: My one criticism of the NYT article is that a lot of people who read it think they can use their tele-coil switch to hear better in any noisy environment. But in fact it can only be used in places where a loop has been installed and the audio is being fed directly into a microphone.
Q: Why the sudden interest in hearing loops?
EL: It’s a wonderful development and we can thank advocacy groups like Hearing Access Program (HAP) and Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) for being champions! Anyone with hearing loss who wants to take advantage of looping and other assistive technology should always look for the universal symbol for assistive listening devices (ALDs). If you can’t find one posted at a particular venue, it usually pays to ask the question.