Unlike eyeglasses and contact lenses that easily resolve most vision problems, a hearing aid is not such an easy fix for hearing difficulties. In many cases, a hearing aid alone is simply not enough. In amplifying sound, it amplifies background noises, too, which can make for a jumble of distorted sound from which the hearing aid-wearer can’t distinguish what they’re trying to hear. And a hearing aid doesn’t pick up sound well that’s coming from a distance or through speakers, as it does in a performance hall or place of worship.
The Gardiner Library recently installed hearing loop technology to address these issues. A hearing loop (also known as an induction loop or an audio loop) provides a magnetic, wireless signal that is picked up by a hearing aid-wearer when the hearing aid is set to the ‘T’ (T-coil) setting. T-coils (telecoils) are tiny additions to hearing aids that enable the hearing aid to serve as a wireless loudspeaker. The T-coil receives the signal from the loop and turns it back into clear sound in the hearing aid, eliminating background noise and distortion.
The technology is not new; it’s been used in Europe for more than 70 years. But its use in public spaces in the U.S. is only just getting started, and it’s mainly found in large cities, which makes it all the more impressive that the small hamlet of Gardiner is blazing the trail locally. The Gardiner Library is one of the first public places in the Hudson Valley to install the technology, and the first library in the region to do so.
The hearing loop in action
A hearing loop looks like nothing more than a standard plastic-covered speaker wire. The Gardiner Library has discreetly installed their loop around the upper perimeter of their community room, hidden over the picture rail molding. The transmitter that sends the signal from the loop to the hearing aid wearer is tucked away inside a cabinet. If it weren’t for the hearing loop signage identifying the space as “looped,” nobody would even know it’s there.
But “looping” the community room allows the hard of hearing to fully participate now in classes, performances and programs given in the room. There is also a tabletop loop at the circulation desk that allows patrons with hearing difficulties to have a comfortable exchange one-on-one with library staff while checking out books or making inquiries. The desktop system will be left turned “on” so the hearing aid wearer has simply to activate the telecoil button on their hearing aid to utilize the device.
Benefactors and advocates
According to Gardiner Library manager Nicole Lane, the Mid-Hudson Chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) contributed $2,000 toward the cost of the system at the library with an additional $1,000 donated by the Friends of the Gardiner Library. The remaining $600 still needed to purchase microphones and hardware to make the system fully operational is being provided by longtime Gardiner resident and retired nurse Florence Butler, who is responsible for getting the ball rolling on the project.
Butler was born hard of hearing, and has been a member of the local chapter of the HLAA since the 1980s. She says that while people tend to understand the difficulties of being completely deaf, they’re not really aware of what the experience of trying to hear is like for people like herself who are not deaf but hard of hearing — which is some 48 million people in the U.S. alone, according to the HLAA.
The difference in the quality of hearing provided by a hearing loop system used in conjunction with a telecoil-equipped hearing aid is substantial, Butler says. “It’s amazingly clear. I can literally feel my body relax when I’m not stressing to hear. I can stand up straight rather than always be leaning in.” Going to a concert in a performance hall that is “looped” means that she can hear the beauty of the cello, she explains, and attending a funeral in a hearing loop-enabled space recently meant she could sit in the back and not miss anything.
The thing about being hard of hearing, Butler adds, is that you don’t know what you’re missing. And when faced with a situation where the sound is distorted as it comes through speakers or is mixed up with background noises, one just becomes resigned to not being able to hear, she says, left feeling removed from the situation rather than feeling energized by having heard a dynamic performance or an interesting presentation.
Juliet Sterken, an audiologist affiliated with the HLAA and a leading advocate of the use of hearing loops, has produced a short demonstration video that’s very instructive of what the experience Butler describes is like. Recorded in a church, the video begins with an audio clip of what the sermon sounds like for a person with hearing difficulties wearing only a hearing aid. The sound is distorted and the actual words lost in the cavernous spaces of the church. The video then continues with a clip of what the sound is like for that listener when a hearing loop system is in place. The difference is dramatic; every word is crystal clear.
Listening to the audio on Sterken’s video, which alternates between examples “with” and “without” a hearing loop, it’s surprising to learn how quickly one’s attention span wanders when the words are inaudible. It doesn’t take long to feel frustrated and find one’s mind mentally “checking out” until the next clip of hearing-looped sound brings one back into the moment. (The video can be experienced at www.hudsonaudiology.com/hearing-loops/.)
New York City recently undertook the country’s largest hearing loop project so far in the Transit Authority’s installation of hearing loops in 488 of their subway booths. There was also a pilot program done in taxis by the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, which resulted in a recommendation for drivers to voluntarily install hearing loops. Temple Emanu-El — which serves the largest Jewish congregation in the world — is looped, as are ticket windows at Yankee Stadium and Mets’ Citi Field and information kiosks at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other cultural and tourist attractions. Retailers like Walgreen pharmacies are running a pilot program to test a hearing loop system in several of their New York City stores and Wegmans pharmacies are doing the same in Rochester.
But the installation of hearing loops in public places, even in big cities, is still far from commonplace. In part, says Butler, that’s because the hearing impaired have not been as vocal about the issue as veterans groups have been about installing ramps at public buildings for the physically disabled. “But hearing loops are the equivalent of those ramps for the hard of hearing,” she says. “They really should be part of a building being ADA-compliant. We shouldn’t have to ask permission to hear.”
More information is available at www.hearingloop.org.