Emily Huhman: Get the University in the loop

Thursday, September 14, 2017 - 3:38pm

In my early teens, my ears began to ring. Friends and family began to sound like what I can best describe as the voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher. At the time, I had chalked it up to just not paying attention as well as I should have. As the years went on my hearing got progressively worse, and after struggling through a basic hearing exam at my doctor’s office I knew something was wrong. I went to an audiologist to have a more rigorous hearing exam. I was told that my hearing was impaired. I was fitted with hearing aids and was immediately struck with how clearly I could hear those around me. My quality of life improved greatly and I became more independent. 

While hearing aids significantly improved my ability to hear people in smaller settings, I still struggled to hear a speaker in larger rooms. With increased background noise and echoing causing interference in my hearing aids, the Charlie Brown teacher voice returned. Hearing loops saved me in those situations.

A hearing loop describes a system in which a wire that surrounds an audience, usually installed in the ceiling or the floor, directly transmits electromagnetic sound from a sound system that someone with a hearing aid or a cochlear implant can pick up by switching their device to the “T-coil” setting. Rooms with a hearing loop installed will have a sign that indicates to a deaf or hard-of-hearing person that a hearing loop is available.

While hearing loops can be installed in any size room, they are especially useful in large spaces like lecture halls, where echoing tends to be a larger problem. By directly transmitting sound to someone with a hearing aid or a cochlear implant, hearing loops cut the unnecessary noise caused by echoing, providing increasing clarity of the speaker to the listener. Not all hearing aids and cochlear implants are equipped with the T-coil setting, but the majority are, meaning that this is a technology that benefits a large percentage of people who are hard of hearing.

This technology is standard in religious and academic institutions around Europe, but the United States has been slow to catch on. Facilities equipped with hearing loops are few and far between; even The Kennedy Center in New York City, a popular event venue, does not make permanent hearing loop technology available to its patrons. Instead, most venues in the United States use FM or infrared systems which are easier to install but require the user to wear a bulky headset, which is conspicuous and can make the user uncomfortable.

In contrast, all London taxis are equipped with hearing loops. Most European churches, including Westminster Abbey, also have hearing loops. With a hearing loop, the cumbersome headsets are ditched and a hearing aid or cochlear implant can become the headset, a system that is much preferred by people who are deaf and hard of hearing. The United States needs to upgrade its technology for people who are deaf and hard of hearing and what better place to start than at the University of Michigan?

While the University has a variety of services for those with hearing loss listed on the Services for Students with Disabilities site, including ASL interpreters, video captioning and student note takers, hearing loops are not mentioned as a service at all, even after I requested a list of on-campus buildings that contained hearing loops. In the many classrooms and lecture halls I have been in over the past year at the University, I have not encountered a single hearing loop sign. This has been frustrating for me in larger lecture halls and has made it very difficult for me to clearly hear the lecturer. The previously mentioned services, while helpful to many, do not cover all the needs of people who are hard of hearing. Not all people who are hard of hearing, including myself, know ASL — and while student note takers are helpful, it does not allow for much personal independence. Hearing loops will help meet the needs of a larger number of students who are hard of hearing at the University of Michigan.

The University does a great job accommodating for its students with disabilities, but more can be done. Hearing loop technology in lecture halls on campus will not only greatly improve sound quality for students who are hard of hearing but will provide independence to those using hearing aids and cochlear implants. Other colleges and universities like the University of Iowa and Grinnell College have already started to introduce hearing loop technology in various lecture halls, libraries and theaters across their campuses. Even our rival Spartans have installed hearing loops in their basketball arena. It’s time for the University of Michigan to follow suit.

Emily Huhman can be reached at huhmanem@umich.edu.