By David H. Kirkwood
For a decade or so, a growing band of advocates has been moving, slowly but steadily, toward its goal of “looping America.” Their vision is to have induction loops installed in public venues all over the country, so that people who use telecoil-equipped hearing aids and cochlear implants will be able to hear and communicate effectively in noisy places despite their hearing loss.
This looping technology, which enables hearing aids to receive only the sounds coming directly from a microphone without the background noise, has been around for decades. While it is widely available in Scandinavia and Great Britain, it has been slow to catch on in the U.S.
However, the looping movement got a major boost this week when a lengthy article in the October 24 New York Times, entitled “A Hearing Aid That Can Cut Out All the Clatter,” gave this technology the kind of positive publicity that no amount of money could buy.
In the article, which was summarized that same day in the blog AARP News, Times reporter John Tierney led with the powerful story of a composer, Richard Einhorn, who had suddenly suffered a severe hearing loss last year at the age of 57. Even when he used headsets, he could no longer really enjoy the sound of music. But then, last June, he went to a performance of the musical Wicked at a loop-equipped concert hall at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
The composer described his experience to Tierney: “There I was at Wicked weeping uncontrollably. For the first time since I lost most of my hearing, live music was perfectly clear, perfectly clean, and incredibly rich.”
“This reaction,” Tierney wrote, “is a common one.” He added, “The technology has the potential to transform the lives of tens of millions of Americans, according to national advocacy groups. As loops are installed in stores, banks, museums, subway stations, and other public spaces, people who have felt excluded are suddenly back in the conversation.”
BIRTH OF A MOVEMENT
What Tierney wrote about is also the vision of David Myers, PhD, a professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, MI. Myers, who is widely considered the father of the looping movement, had an epiphany of his own, much like that experienced by Richard Einhorn at the Kennedy Center. He wrote about it in an article, “Harnessing the Human Factor in Hearing Assistance,” published this month in the Association for Psychological Science (APS) Observer.
Myers, who has long had a severe hearing loss, told of a visit he made 12 years ago to an ancient abbey in Scotland. “As the spoken word [of the tour guide] reverberated off the 800-year-old stone walls, it was, for me, an unintelligible verbal fog,” he recalled. But then his wife noticed a sign indicating an induction loop. Myers activated the telecoil in his hearing aid and found: “The result was stunning: Suddenly I was hearing a clear voice speaking from the center of my head. The delicious sound (is this what others hear?) put me on the verge of tears.”
When he returned to Michigan, Myers looped the room in his home where he watches television and then his office. When he saw how well they worked and remembered his experience in Scotland, he thought, “Why not loop my community?”
Thanks to Myers’s determination and leadership, hearing loops have proliferated throughout western Michigan. They have been installed in hundreds of locations, including most houses of worship, many school and senior citizen center auditoriums, the convention center and airport in Grand Rapids, and Michigan State University’s basketball arena. In a related development, local audiologists and dispensers rarely let a patient leave their offices with hearing aids that don’t include a telecoil.
Myers, who was interviewed for the Times story, told Tierney, “I used to detest my hearing aids, but now that they serve this second purpose, I love the way they’ve enriched my life.” (For more about Myers and his campaign, see his Hearing View on Hearinghealthmatters.org.)
OTHER LOOP CHAMPIONS EMERGE
In other parts of the country, new looping advocates have emerged, some because of Myers’s efforts, some independently. One whom he inspired was Juliette Sterkens, AuD, who has worked successfully to have many public facilities in and around Oshkosh, WI, looped.
Bill Diles, an audiologist in California, has focused on putting loops in his patients’ TV rooms. He has installed more than 1800 of them and his surveys have found that that patient satisfaction has markedly improved.
When Janice Schacter Lintz learned that her young daughter, Arielle, had a hearing loss, she gave up practicing law to devote her expertise as an advocate to making New York City more accessible to all those who share Arielle’s disability.
Lintz founded and leads the Hearing Access Program (HAP), which was successful in getting loops installed at the ticket windows of the Yankees’ and Mets’ baseball stadiums; in various facilities on Ellis Island and in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Museum of Natural History, and New York Botanical Garden; and at the Apple store in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood.
HAP has also made it much easier for hearing aid wearers to get around New York. Loops have been installed in about 500 subway ticket booths, and it’s expected that by next spring, all the booths will be so equipped.
CONSUMERS, PROFESSIONALS JOIN FORCES
Another important step forward took place last year when the Hearing Loss Association of America and the American Academy of Audiology collaborated in “Get in the Loop.” This public education campaign is designed to make consumers and audiologists alike better informed and more enthusiastic about the benefits of hearing loops.
Interviewed in the Times article about the joint effort, Patricia Kricos, PhD, the immediate past president of the academy, acknowledged that audiologists had tended to overlook the value of loop systems.
She said, “Audiologists have always had a lot of faith in new high-tech hearing aids and cochlear implants, which are wonderful. But we’re coming to realize that these work primarily in relatively quiet places without a lot of reverberation and noise. In many settings, like a train station, they can’t give you the crystal-clear clarity that you can get from a hearing loop.”
“APPROACHING A TIPPING POINT”
As the looping campaign has spread to more and more parts of the country, the momentum has built and increased media coverage has resulted.
This week’s article in the New York Times is only the latest example of the attention being given to this long-underused technology. Scientific American, AARP Bulletin, and National Public Radio’s Science Friday have all done stories on hearing loops recently. And All Things Considered, another NPR program is expected to do a segment on the topic.
All these developments have made David Myers optimistic about the outcome of what he calls “my avocational passion of the last decade.” In his article in the APS Observer, he wrote:
“Our advocacy is less for hearing loops per se than for hearing technology that appreciates the human factor — by enabling hearing instruments to serve an important second function, as simple, affordable, wireless loudspeakers. Happily, we are now approaching a cultural tipping point where that dream looks like an achievable reality.”