Hearing Loops Provide Hearing Access for People with Hearing Loss

Juliëtte SterkensAdvisor at Hearing Loops
January 22, 2023

Hearing loss is common. For some, their hearing loss is a minor and manageable nuisance. They report hearing “Okay” as long as it’s quiet, or as long as the person they are communicating with faces them. Sometimes they blame others for misunderstanding (“I could hear fine if only so-and-so would stop mumbling.”) For these persons, their mild hearing loss may present challenges when communicating in noisy gatherings, while at a bar, in the theater, at busy train stations, or airports. 

Estimates by the World Health Organization suggested over 1 out of every 10 persons has significant hearing loss. The WHO estimates that for half of all persons with measurable hearing loss, their loss of hearing has progressed to warrant hearing rehabilitation. Meaning they could benefit from hearing aids or some form of a personal sound amplification device. Because the prevalence of hearing loss increases with age, 1 out of 4 over the age of 60 are affected by disabling hearing loss. 

Hearing loss can range from mild (unable to hear whispers), to moderate (difficulty hearing normal conversation), to severe and profound (only able to hear shouted speech with the use of lipreading.) Less than 3 out of every 100 persons belong to the Deaf culture where the use of sign language is common.  For the vast majority of persons with hearing loss, their loss of hearing is acquired following the acquisition of speech and language, which means they do not benefit from or use sign language; they depend on hearing devices, and visual information to comprehend the spoken word. 

Do hearing aids restore hearing, the way eyeglasses improve vision? 

Modern hearing aids provide significant benefits to persons dealing with hearing loss. Many consumers rave about being able to hear the song of birds, footsteps in the woods, the chatter of a child, and voices of loved ones thanks to hearing aids but hearing aids do not restore hearing to normal. While sounds of interest are enjoyed once again, noises – sounds that we don’t want to hear – are back too. And it is not just background noise that frustrates hearing aid users. Hearing over distance (think theaters) or in reverberant places (think large cathedrals), even with hearing aids, is challenging.  

The effect of distance from the sound source is intensified for hearing aid users. Think of input to the hearing aid microphone as an ever-expanding funnel. As one moves further and further away from the sound source, the “funnel” in effect, becomes wider and wider and gathers in more and more sounds, wanted and unwanted sounds, and mixes them all together – making understanding increasingly difficult.  When coupled with the reduced discrimination capability that frequently accompanies more severe hearing loss, intelligibility and listening enjoyment suffer immensely and communication is challenged. For a hearing loss simulator: see here.

Most hearing aid users do best where wanted signals originate less than 2-3 meters from their ears and only in places where it is quieter, reverberation is minimal, and the speakers can be easily seen (to aid in lipreading).  But what about the - often acoustically unfriendly - public environments we all move around in on a daily basis? Places where persons with even normal hearing at times struggle to hear. Think pharmacy counters or banks where tellers are behind glass, boardrooms and large meeting spaces, houses of worship, theaters, airports, or train stations.  

Can something be done to improve communication, to ensure hearing loss is no longer a barrier, and people with hearing loss are not left behind? If wheelchair ramps help people with mobility challenges, is there an equivalent for people with hearing loss and hearing aids that can help them hear with greater ease and put them “on par” with normal hearing folks?  The answer is YES!  Hearing loops, an assistive technology that some call wheelchair ramps for people with hearing loss, can be of great benefit. 

In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act (the ADA) mandates where “audible communication is integral to the use of the space and a PA system is in use, an assistive listening system (ALS) shall be installed”. While several types of ALS exist, hearing loops are the most user-friendly and universal assistive listening system available. 

In a hearing loop, when they switch their hearing aid (or cochlear implant) to the T-coil or telecoil setting, the sound from the PA system is broadcast directly and wirelessly into their hearing aids. With hearing loops, there is no need for users to pick up a generic receiver from a service desk. In a hearing loop, the hearing aid is the receiver. Hear the difference a hearing loop makes in a Convention Center.

A 2014 study reported by Hearing Review asked 866 adult users of T-coil-equipped hearing aids and cochlear implants to rate their ability to understand speech in places such as places of worship, theaters and auditoriums, and conference rooms. Less than 14 percent rated their ability to hear without a hearing loop above a seven. However, 86 percent rated their experience between eight and ten while listening in a looped area.

A graph presenting the results of the hearing loop experiment that explains 86 percent rated their experience between eight and ten while listening in a looped area

Hearing loop technology was pioneered in Europe where it is widely embraced and highly successful. When hearing accessibility in the United States was made a requirement of law in 1990 under the Americans with Disabilities Act, (unfortunately) no distinction was made between loop systems and less expensive FM or Infrared (IR) systems. Although the ADA did require that systems provide access to “effective communication,” people with severe to profound hearing loss—for whom FM and IR systems often fall short—were slow to mobilize advocacy for hearing loops.

An update to the ADA Standard for Accessible Design in 2010 required that for renovation and new construction, at least 25% of receivers provided be hearing aid compatible—meaning that users do not have to remove their hearing aids to use the system. This change in the law dramatically raised the interest in and availability of hearing loops because loops are the only assistive listening systems that connect directly to telecoils in hearing devices. 

The Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) has been working to raise awareness of the benefits of hearing loops and advocate for their installation in public venues through their Get in the Hearing Loop initiative.

How do consumers know where hearing loops are?

Thanks to a joint effort by HALL's Get in the Hearing Loop (GITHL) program and Google, consumers can now use the Google Maps app to find out if a hearing loop is available at a business or venue. Having easy access to hearing loop locations will help millions of people with hearing loss find communication access when they venture out in the world. Members of the GITHL committee are helping Google Maps add loop locations (mostly in North America at this time) to its database, but venues can also update their profiles with this information. 

An iPhone screenshot of the Kennedy Center's location on Google Maps that affirms an assistive hearing loop at the location

To Access the Google Maps Hearing Loop Accessibility Feature

For now, the easiest way to find hearing loops is by using a smartphone; open a Google Maps listing, under the photos, scroll to the right to find the “About” tab. Then click on “About” and scroll down to reveal the Accessibility Attribute; if the facility offers an assistive hearing loop, it will be listed under details. 

To learn more visit: www.hearingloss.org/programs-events/get-hearing-loop/hearing-loop-toolkit/ 

If you have benefited from a hearing loop, let the facility know. Write a review and thank the management for making their place accessible for people like you. 

What if a facility isn’t listed as offering a hearing loop, but you know for a fact it does, because you used it?  Click on “Update this place” (see red arrow) or submit using this online form

What if you’d like to see a facility offer hearing loop technology? Write a brief Google Review with your request. 

Spread the word. Share positive personal experience stories about using Google Maps and hearing loops in your community using Google Reviews, posting photos of hearing loops on social media. Your reviews or comments will help others find hearing loops. 

Let’s make everyone aware that hearing loops are essential to providing hearing accessibility because they ensure hearing aid users can hear and participate with ease, just like everyone else! 

By: Juliëtte Sterkens, AuD  

Following a successful career in private practice in Oshkosh Wisconsin, Dutch-born audiologist Dr. Juliëtte Sterkens is currently on her encore career as the Hearing Loss Association of America’s professional hearing loop advisor. In this capacity, she advocates for the inclusion of telecoils in hearing aids and cochlear implants, the installation of hearing loop systems that meet the international hearing loop standard (IEC 60118-4), as well as another telecoil compatible assistive technology, to permit universal hearing access for consumers with hearing loss the world over.

HLAA:

Founded in 1979 by Howard “Rocky” Stone, the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) is the (US) nation’s leading organization representing consumers with hearing loss. They offer programs and events focused on the person with hearing loss. The organization strives to give people the tools they need to live more successfully with hearing loss and to show them they do not have to face living with hearing loss alone.