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With The Flick Of A Switch, It's Crystal Clear To Hear

Arielle Schacter, 17, holds her hearing aid in a New York subway station. Hearing loop technology funnels a transit worker's voice into her ear, blocking out the subway noise behind her. (Ashley Milne-Tyte for NPR)

For the more than 10 percent of Americans who have some form of hearing loss, mass transit can be frustrating, especially on a busy travel weekend like this one. Even if you wear a hearing aid, trying to hear in places like airports, theaters and places of worship can be tough.

But a group of advocates is changing that by putting a not-so-new technology called telecoils to work. The coils are small wires hidden inside a majority of hearing aids that, when activated, amplify sound emitting from magnetic sources, like loudspeakers.

Psychology professor David Myers is a proponent of telecoils and the hearing loop infrastructure that supports them. He discovered the technology when he went on vacation to Scotland. He was thrilled to visit the 800-year-old Iona Abbey, but when the service began, he was lost.

"As the sound reverberated around those ancient stone walls, it was indecipherable by the time it got to my ears," Myers says.

Then his wife noticed a hearing assistance sign on the wall with a 'T' on it, which stood for telecoil. Since Myers was wearing hearing aids that contained the tiny, inexpensive part, he pressed a button on each hearing aid to activate the feature.

Suddenly crystal clear sound was coming from the center of my head as if the person were three feet in front of my face.
David Myers, an advocate for hearing loops

"And what happened was just amazing," he says. "Suddenly, crystal clear sound was coming from the center of my head as if the person were three feet in front of my face."

The abbey had installed a wire called a hearing loop or induction loop, which transmits sound via a magnetic signal to the telecoil in a hearing aid or cochlear implant. Once switched on, that telecoil acts as a personal wireless loudspeaker for the listener. Sixty-nine percent of new hearing aid models contain telecoils.

To a regular hearing aid wearer, a church service can sound muddled because the voice of a speaker at the front reverberates and melds with ambient noise around the room. But listening to the same service with the assistance of a telecoil makes the speaker's voice immediately intelligible without the background noise.

Hearing loops are common in public spaces and at ticket windows in Britain and Scandinavia. Since he got back from Scotland, Myers has been on a mission to bring them to the United States. His part of Michigan now has hundreds of them, from senior centers to the Grand Rapids airport.

Hearing Well With Fewer Steps

But hearing assistance systems in this country more commonly use infrared or FM signals to transmit sound. The problem with that technology, Myers says, is it requires people with hearing loss to "get up, locate, check out, wear and return special equipment."

The equipment may be either a headset or a neck loop, and many people with imperfect hearing are reluctant to go through the trouble or call attention to themselves. Janice Schacter runs an advocacy group in New York City called the Hearing Access Program.

"People with hearing loss actually want dignity," she says. "They don't want a big neon sign saying, 'I have a hearing loss.' "

Schacter's daughter Arielle, 17, has severe hearing loss. Family outings could be a trial.

"We would go to a Broadway show, and she couldn't hear the sound," Schacter says. "Sometimes the sound director would think the music was loud enough and they therefore didn't need to mic the music into the headset; sometimes the headsets were broken."

Schacter's organization has helped get hearing loops installed at New York venues like the Natural History Museum, an Apple store and most of the information booths in the notoriously noisy subway system.

Arielle Schacter says the hearing loop in the booth at a station funnels the transit worker's voice right into her ear and blocks out the subway noise behind her.

Without it, she says, "I would have a much more difficult time, I would rely less on hearing and more on lip reading and doing that. And ... that's not perfect."

Her mother is continuing her push to loop New York City and other places. Janice Schacter says as baby boomers age, they'll want as hassle-free a way to hear as possible.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Now, it's not just families of young kids who find it tough to travel these days. For Americans with hearing loss, being able to hear in airports and train stations can be a real challenge. Ashley Milne-Tyte reports that a group of advocates is now trying to change that with help from a not-so-new technology.

ASHLEY MILNE-TYTE, BYLINE: When psychology professor David Myers went on vacation to Scotland, he was thrilled to visit 800-year-old Iona Abbey. But when the service began, he was lost.

DAVID MYERS: As the sound reverberated around those ancient stone walls, it was indecipherable by the time it got to my ears.

MILNE-TYTE: Then, his wife noticed a hearing assistance sign on the wall with a T on it. The T stood for telecoil. Myers was wearing hearing aids that contained a telecoil - a tiny, inexpensive part. He pressed a button on each hearing aid to activate the feature.

MYERS: And what happened was just amazing. Suddenly, crystal-clear sound was coming from the center of my head as if the person were three feet in front of my face.

MILNE-TYTE: The abbey had installed a wire called a hearing loop or induction loop. It transmits sound via a magnetic signal to the telecoil in a hearing aid or cochlear implant. Once switched on, that telecoil acts as a personal wireless loudspeaker for the listener. Sixty-nine percent of new hearing-aid models contain telecoils. Here's how a regular church service can sound to a hearing-aid wearer.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The second lesson: Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.

MILNE-TYTE: Now, here's that sound again, transmitted via hearing loop.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The second lesson: Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.

MILNE-TYTE: Hearing loops are common in public spaces and at ticket windows in Britain and Scandinavia. Since he got back from Scotland, Myers has been on a mission to bring them to the U.S. His part of Michigan now has hundreds - from senior centers to the Grand Rapids airport. But hearing-assistance systems in this country more commonly use infrared or FM signals to transmit sound. Myers says the problem with that technology is it requires people with hearing loss to do the work.

MYERS: To get up, locate, check out, wear and return special equipment.

MILNE-TYTE: Either a headset or a neck loop, which many people with imperfect hearing are reluctant to do. Janice Schacter runs an advocacy group in New York City called the Hearing Access Program.

JANICE SCHACTER: People with hearing loss actually want dignity. They don't want a big neon sign that says: I have a hearing loss.

MILNE-TYTE: Schacter's daughter Arielle, now 17, has severe hearing loss. Family outings became a trial.

SCHACTER: We would go to a Broadway show, and she couldn't hear the sound. Sometimes, the sound director would think the music was loud enough, and they therefore didn't need to mic the music into the headset. Sometimes, the headsets were broken.

MILNE-TYTE: Schacter's organization has helped get hearing loops installed at New York venues like the Natural History Museum, a branch of the Apple store and most of the information booths in the notoriously noisy subway system. Arielle Schacter says the hearing loop in the booth at this station funnels the transit worker's voice right into her ear and blocks out the subway noise behind her. Without it...

ARIELLE SCHACTER: I would have a much more difficult time. I would be relying less on hearing and more on lip reading and doing that. And I mean, that's not perfect.

MILNE-TYTE: Her mother is continuing her push to loop New York City and other places, too. Janice Schacter says as baby boomers age, they'll want as hassle-free a way to hear as possible. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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