Assistive Technology Series: Technology for Hearing Disabilities

Submitted by Jessica Luzanilla on Mon, 08/15/2022
Hearing loss can affect a person's ability to develop communication, language and social skills. The great news is that because of technology, individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing can benefit from many types of assistive technology that are designed to augment auditory information.

In this installment of our Assistive Technology Series, we touch on the topic of assistive technology for individuals with hearing disabilities.

About Hearing Disabilities

Hearing loss can affect a person’s ability to develop communication, language and social skills. Hearing loss happens when any part of the ear or auditory system is not working like it is supposed to. There are four types of hearing loss: conductive, sensorineural, mixed hearing loss, as well as auditory neuropathy spectrum disorder.

Additionally, the degree of hearing loss can range from mild to profound. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), 1 in 8 individuals living in the U.S. experiences hearing loss in both ears.

The great news is that because of technology, individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing can benefit from many types of assistive technology that are designed to augment auditory information. They can also be used just about anywhere and anytime.  

What types of AT are available for users with hearing disabilities?

NIDCD has identified three types of assistive technology that can help people with hearing disabilities: assistive listening devices, augmentative and alternative communication devices and alerting devices.

Assistive listening devices (ALDs)

This type of assistive technology works by amplifying the sounds that a person may want to hear and is very helpful when there are a lot of background noises. When this technology is coupled with a hearing aid or a cochlear implant, it can help the person hear certain sounds more clearly. Some of these ALDs include hearing loop systems, frequency-modulated (FM) systems and infrared systems. ALDs have also been designed to be used in larger settings, including places of worship, larger classrooms and movie theaters.

Hearing loop, or induction loop systems

These work by using electromagnetic energy to transfer sound. It is made up of four parts that allows sound to travel through a special loop and then creates an electromagnetic field that is picked up directly by the hearing loop receiver. These types of systems are also portable.

FM systems

FM systems use radio signals to communicate sounds. These can be used in classroom settings, where instructors use small microphones that are connected to transmitters. These in turn send the sound to the user that is wearing a transmitter and can be picked up using specific channels. FM systems can transmit signals of up to 300 feet and be used in larger spaces or in nearby one-on-one dialogues.

Infrared systems

Infrared systems work by using infrared light to communicate sound. A transmitter converts sound into a light signal and beams it to a receiver that is worn by the listener. The receiver decodes the signal back to sound. However, their signal cannot pass through walls. They also cannot be used in an environment with too many light sources.

Personal amplifiers

This technology works by increasing sound levels and reducing the amount of background noise for the listener. Some come with microphones and can communicate sound via headphones.  

Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices

These work by helping users to communicate. A popular type of AAC device is a teletypewriter (TTY), also known as a text telephone (TT), or telecommunication devices for the deaf (TDD). This technology is used to help communicate via phone and can also benefit users with speech difficulties.

TTY devices are made up of a typewriter keyboard that displays typed conversations onto a readout panel or is printed on paper. Callers can then type messages to one another over the system, or if a user does not have access to a TTY machine, can use the national toll-free telecommunications relay service. From here, a communications assistant will read the typed messages aloud to the person with hearing while transcribing what was spoken for the person with hearing loss.

Alerting devices

Alerting devices help notify users that an event is taking place by emitting a loud sound or blinking light. There are many types of alerting devices available, and they usually use sound, light, vibrations or a combination of these to alert the user that something is happening. Examples may include clocks or wake up alarm systems and smart doorbells.

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