MAY 11, 2012 8:45 a.m. (2)
Lucy Woodhouse, director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Furman, had never heard of hearing loops before two different OLLI members asked her if she knew anything about them.
But once she and Tim Hightower, Furman’s media systems manager, started researching them, they realized that hearing loops had great potential to help hard-of-hearing OLLI visitors.
“We both determined that we’d be lucky to have the system in the building,” Woodhouse said. “It sounded like the technology was so much better. It just sounded like it was the way to go.”
OLLI is not alone. Nearly a dozen public venues in the Upstate are now equipped with hearing loops – technically known as audio frequency induction loops, clarified James Stowell, CEO of American Hearing Loop. The company, with offices in Greenville, Atlanta and Raleigh, N.C., has installed a number of them throughout the Southeast.
The hearing loop consists of a loop of cable around a designated area – which can be as big as a concert hall or sports arena or as small as a desk – that uses electromagnetic energy to transmit sound directly to the telecoil in a listener’s hearing aid. The listener hears just the sound he’s interested in – a concert, a sermon, his wife’s voice in a crowded restaurant – without the clutter of amplified background noise older assisted listening systems provide.
“It’s a direct connection from the speaker to your brain,” Stowell explained.
Scott Peyton, of Wireless Hearing Solutions in Michigan, installed a hearing loop system at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greenville, with great results. “Some people have been going to St. Mary’s for 40 years and have never heard the sermon, because of the reverberation and the delay created by the speakers and the PA system,” remarked Stowell. “When they sit in the loop, it’s as if they’re the only person in the church.”
To take advantage of a hearing loop, a listener must have a hearing aid equipped with a telecoil that can pick up the loop’s transmissions directly. Hearing loop technology has been more widespread in Europe, and has only started catching on in the United States recently, as the technology to miniaturize the telecoils has advanced. Now, telecoils are built into most hearing aids and cochlear implants sold here.
“Having a hearing aid in the 21st century is like having a MacBook Pro on each ear,” said Stowell. The effectiveness of hearing loops is enhanced by the fact that each wearer’s hearing aid is customized for his own hearing loss, he said.
Stowell is one of his own best customers. He started losing his hearing while serving in the Army, and now has lost all hearing in his left ear and 85 percent of the hearing in his right ear. He uses a few different hearing loops every day, including one designed for phone conversations.
Venues such as Yankee Stadium and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives and Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., already feature hearing loops.
Spartanburg audiologist Ben Dawsey donated a hearing loop system for the Chapman Cultural Center’s David Reid Theatre. “The comments I’ve heard from people using it is that it makes a huge difference in their enjoyment level of the show,” said ticket office manager Melissa Earley. “A couple of our regulars have told me that it’s the first time in many years that they’ve been able to understand every word of a play.”
“It’s been a great blessing to a lot of people,” agreed Steve Wong, the Chapman Cultural Center’s marketing director. The system has been getting “great reviews” from Chapman patrons impressed by the quality of the sound. “It really is the industry standard these days,” Wong said. “This is the way to go. It’s much better in terms of quality, and it’s easy to use.”
But let the buyer beware, cautioned Stowell: The increasing popularity of hearing loops has attracted a number of “carpetbaggers” who will “come in and throw a piece of wire on the ground and stick a magnet into it and call it a hearing loop.” The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) has established standards for hearing loop sound reproduction; all of American Hearing Loop’s installations meet that standard, Stowell said.
Even though the technology is gaining popularity regionally, with several systems operational in cities like Greensboro and Charlotte, N.C. and Atlanta and Savannah, Ga., hearing loops have been slow to take off in the Upstate, Stowell admitted. Price is one factor: The OLLI center is paying about $10,000 per room for their hearing loops, Woodhouse estimated. A small church can get wired for about $8,000, while a larger venue’s system may cost $18,000, Stowell said. A home system designed for a TV room costs about $500.
“I haven’t found anybody who doesn’t want a hearing loop. In fact, they stand in line for them,” Stowell said. “The problem is, where do you get the funding for it?”
Once a loop is in place, however, the reaction from hearing-impaired people is fairly predictable.
“I have sore ribs,” said Stowell. “I have never been squeezed and hugged and kissed so much. When you see the tears in the eyes of grown men who have never heard their grandchildren, it just tears you up. The response has been unanimously, 110 percent, complete consensus, the most wonderful thing they’ve ever heard.”