Phones and Hearing Loss

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Dr. Suzanne Yoder, HearWell Center

There is much to consider when it comes to using telephones when you have a hearing loss.  This article will attempt to review some of the basic considerations for telecommunication for individuals who have lost their hearing.

Use of the Phone with Hearing Aids

One might think that having hearing aids would allow for normal phone use but there are many considerations.  Most people who struggle with the phone will find that using their hearing aids help but they have to modify the way that they hold the phone in order for the sound to transfer properly.  For instance, in the case of using a behind the ear hearing aid, individuals will need to hold the handset of the phone closer to the microphone near the top of their ear instead of the opening of their ear canal.  Those that use hearing aids in the ear may have to hold the handset of the phone at an angle to avoid feedback.  Fortunately for hearing aid users, if these modifications do not suffice other features built into the hearing aids can help.

Telecoils

A telecoil is a special feature in most hearing aids.  Its job is to transfer the sound from the phone through the hearing aid using electromagnetic energy.  By using a telecoil the hearing aid microphone can be switched off or lowered to allow for better concentration of the phone conversation without interference from other noises in the room.  It also reduces or eliminates the annoying whistling problem that can come with covering a hearing aid.  A telecoil may be selected in the hearing aids customized settings by the audiologist and the user then pushes a button to turn it on and off.  Some hearing aids will also have an option to have the telecoil work automatically when the phone is used thereby eliminating the need to push a button.

Hands-free Phone Calls with Hearing Aids

By utilizing Bluetooth, today’s hearing aids have the option to add an accessory for hands free phone use.  These accessories look different for each manufacturer but they all follow the same principle: they stream sound from an audio device to the hearing aids wirelessly.  These streaming devices have some major benefits over the above mentioned solutions: they allow for hearing with both ears simultaneously and without interference.  From studies of auditory recognition, we know that our brain has the best hearing reception when both ears are being used.  This is called binaural benefit.  A similar effect can be achieved by setting a phone to speaker phone and listening with both ears but this is typically not as clear and is certainly not as private as using streaming technology.  Generally speaking streaming devices are used with cell phones and other Bluetooth enabled phones, however, adaptors can be purchased to modify home phones, even landlines.

Amplified Phones, Captioned Phones and Phone Adaptors

Phones present a difficult listening situation since you cannot see the speaker’s face to help lipread or sense emotions, it is more difficult to predict the topic and with on-the-go technology there is often a noisy connection when speaking to people using cell phones.  Therefore it is likely that those with hearing loss, even if they use hearing aids, may still need additional accessories to communicate by phone.  Special phones built to help those with hearing loss can provide features to bridge that gap including amplification on the handset with sound level  boosts from 20-60 dB, flashing lights and loud ringers to alert the user of a call and even answering machines that you can slow down the playback speed.  Phones are available with captioning as well as sound to provide visual input to help fill in those gaps in the conversation.  Captioning is also available on mobile phones and online.  Adaptors can be added to most phones both landline and cell phones to boost amplification.

Telecommunication for the Deaf

In the case that an individual prefers visual telecommunication on the phone there are options that allow video phone communication or text communication.  These options are generally chosen by individuals that are Deaf and do not have enough residual hearing for hearing on the phone and/or for those that rely on Sign Language as their primary means of communication.

Getting the Phone

There are many ways to go about getting phones for hearing loss including direct to consumer websites and retail stores.  I recommend consulting with an audiologist prior to purchasing phone equipment.  There are programs in the state of Pennsylvania that provide free phone for those in lower income brackets.  There are also some discount programs for captioned phones.  When shopping for cellphones, there are rating scales for microphone (M) compatibility and telecoil (T) compatibility. The rating scale ranges from 1 to 4. The four possibilities are: M1 or T1 (poor), M2 or T2 (fair), M3 or T3 (good) and M4 or T4 (excellent).  Only phones rated 3 or 4 are allowed to be sold as hearing aid compatible (HAC). Phones that would have only been rated 1 or 2 are deemed unacceptable.  When shopping for landline phones look for hearing aid compatible on the box and refer to your audiologist for the dB boost level needed for your hearing loss.  Another consideration is to research smartphones with applications that allow for captioning on the go (not all smartphones have this).

HearWell Center is proud to provide consultations to discuss phone options as part of an assessment for hearing help products.  We participate in multiple programs offering free and discounted phones.


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