Assistive Learning Device

The information presented within this glossary entry is aimed at website owners seeking to learn the ropes of web accessibility. Technical elements are described in layman’s terms, and, as a rule, all topics pertaining to the legalities of web accessibility are presented in as simplified a manner as possible. This guide has no legal bearing, and cannot be relied on in the case of litigation.

An assistive listening device (ALD) is a type of technology designed to improve sound accessibility for individuals with hearing impairments. These devices primarily work by amplifying and clarifying sounds, making it easier for users to hear and understand in various environments. By reducing background noise and addressing distance-related auditory challenges, assistive listening devices enhance the listening experience, particularly in settings that are typically problematic for those with hearing loss.

Distinct from hearing aids, assistive listening devices are specifically engineered to isolate and enhance specific audio signals, which can be especially beneficial in public or large spaces. While they can function independently, assistive listening devices also complement hearing aids by targeting sounds that are difficult to capture, ensuring more comprehensive auditory assistance.

Types of assistive listening devices

Assistive listening devices come in various forms, each designed to cater to different listening environments and user needs. These assistive listening devices are also compatible with other hearing aids, enhancing users’ auditory experience. 

Here's an overview of some common types of assistive listening devices:

  • FM systems: These devices use frequency modulation to transmit sound. An FM system consists of a transmitter microphone used by the speaker and a receiver worn by the listener. The transmitter sends the audio signal directly to the receiver, helping to bridge the distance and reduce background noise. Individuals with hearing aids equipped with FM receivers can seamlessly connect to the system, enhancing their hearing experience in classrooms and public speaking events
  • Infrared systems: Infrared ALDs work similarly to FM systems but use infrared light to transmit sound. A major advantage of infrared systems is that the signal is contained within the room (as infrared cannot pass through walls), ensuring privacy. This makes them ideal for courtrooms, boardrooms, and cinemas. Hearing aids with compatible infrared receivers can pick up these signals, providing a discreet and accessible listening solution in these environments
  • Induction loop systems: These systems utilize a loop of wire that circles a room or is worn around the neck and transmits sound electromagnetically. The telecoil in a hearing aid or cochlear implant can pick up these signals. Induction loops are beneficial in places of worship, airports, and bank counters, offering a seamless experience for hearing aid users. Users simply need to activate the telecoil mode in their hearing aids to connect to the induction loop, enhancing their hearing in these spaces
  • Personal amplifiers: Personal amplifiers are small, portable devices that amplify sound for an individual. They typically come with a microphone, a small amplifier, and headphones or earbuds. These are useful in one-on-one conversations or small group settings and are ideal for personal use in various daily situations. Personal amplifiers are compatible with most hearing aids, as users can adjust the volume and connect the device directly to their hearing aids, ensuring clear sound in personal interactions

Benefits of assistive listening devices

Assistive listening devices offer a range of significant benefits for individuals with hearing difficulties:

  • Improved communication: Assistive listening devices play a pivotal role in enhancing communication for individuals with hearing impairments. By amplifying and clarifying sounds, they make it easier for users to engage in conversations, participate in activities, and connect with others effectively
  • Enhanced listening experience: Assistive listening devices improve the overall listening experience, particularly in challenging acoustic environments. They help reduce background noise, making it easier for users to focus on the desired audio source. This benefit is especially valuable in noisy public spaces, theaters, and crowded events
  • Increased independence: Assistive listening devices empower individuals with hearing difficulties to regain their independence. They can actively participate in social, educational, and professional settings without relying solely on others for information and communication support

In many countries, including the United States, there are legal requirements and regulations in place to ensure that individuals with hearing impairments have equal access to public spaces and services. Some prominent laws include:

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): This comprehensive federal law in the United States prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities and often requires public entities and places of public accommodation to provide assistive learning devices for effective communication
  • Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act: This section mandates that federal agencies in the United States make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities, including the use of assistive learning devices to facilitate communication for individuals with hearing impairments
  • Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA): In Canada, the Canadian Human Rights Act ensures that individuals with disabilities have equal access to services and facilities. This may include the provision of assistive learning devices in various public settings
  • European Accessibility Act (EAA): The EAA is a European Union directive aimed at improving the accessibility of products and services. It includes provisions related to the accessibility of audiovisual media services, which may involve the use of assistive learning devices to ensure access for individuals with disabilities
  • Equality Act 2010 (UK): In the United Kingdom, the Equality Act 2010 sets out legal requirements to prevent discrimination against individuals with disabilities. It includes provisions related to the accessibility of services and may require the provision of assistive learning devices to ensure equal access

Accessibility standards for assistive listening devices

Accessibility standards play a crucial role in ensuring that assistive learning devices meet specific quality and performance criteria, making them effective tools for individuals with hearing impairments. Here are some key standards:

  • ANSI C63.19 Standard: Developed by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), this standard outlines the performance requirements for wireless audio systems, including assistive learning devices. It ensures that assistive learning devices meet quality and performance criteria, contributing to their effectiveness
  • International Building Code (IBC): The IBC is a model building code that includes provisions related to accessibility. It may require the installation of assistive learning devices in certain public spaces to ensure accessibility for all visitors.

While these standards are not laws themselves, they often align with and support legal requirements in various jurisdictions.

For example, in the United States, ANSI C63.19 standards complement the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), ensuring compliance with legal obligations for accessibility.

Challenges and limitations relating to assistive listening devices

Assistive listening devices offer valuable assistance but come with specific challenges:

  • Cost considerations: Assistive listening devices can be costly, potentially creating financial barriers for individuals with hearing impairments. Access to affordable options and financial assistance programs is essential to address this challenge effectively
  • Compatibility and learning curve: Ensuring seamless compatibility between assistive listening devices and hearing aids may require adjustments and technical expertise. Users, especially newcomers, may face a learning curve in operating and optimizing these devices. Adequate training and support can help overcome this obstacle
  • Maintenance and battery life: Regular maintenance, including cleaning and battery replacement, is necessary to keep assistive listening devices functioning effectively. Users must monitor battery life to prevent sudden interruptions in communication
  • Limited coverage areas: Wireless assistive listening devices, such as FM and infrared systems, may have limited coverage areas, potentially causing signal drop-offs or interference in larger spaces. Careful planning and system design can mitigate this limitation
  • Environmental challenges: Assistive listening devices may not perform optimally in challenging environmental conditions, such as extreme noise or poor lighting. Users should be aware of these limitations and seek alternative solutions when necessary
  • Dependency on technology: While assistive listening devices provide valuable assistance, there is a risk of users becoming overly dependent on technology. Encouraging a balanced approach to communication is important to prevent social isolation

Advances in assistive listening devices

Recent technological developments have significantly enhanced the capabilities of assistive listening devices, making them more effective tools for individuals with hearing impairments. 

Some notable advances include:

  • Wireless connectivity: Many modern assistive listening devices now offer seamless wireless connectivity with smartphones and other devices. This feature enables users to stream audio directly to their assistive listening devices, improving the clarity of phone calls, music, and other audio sources
  • Smartphone apps: Innovative smartphone applications have emerged, allowing smartphones to function as powerful assistive listening devices. These apps use the device's microphone to amplify and clarify sounds, providing a cost-effective solution for some users
  • Directional microphones: Advanced assistive listening devices are equipped with directional microphones that automatically focus on the primary sound source. This reduces background noise and enhances speech clarity in noisy environments
  • Bluetooth integration: Bluetooth technology is now a standard feature in many assistive listening devices, enabling wireless connections to a variety of compatible devices, including TVs, tablets, and computers
  • Rechargeable batteries: Many assistive listening devices now come with rechargeable batteries, reducing the need for frequent battery replacements and lowering the long-term cost of ownership

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