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Southern Oregon needs to get in the (hearing) loop

We’re all familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA for short — it’s the federal law that ensures you will find an elevator in most multi-story buildings open to the public; wheelchair-friendly doors and public bathrooms, and those bumpy yellow plates still being installed in sidewalks to alert blind people that they are about to cross a street. Disabilities of all kinds are accommodated everywhere you look — with one notable exception.

The deaf and hearing-impaired often must rely on other people to help them communicate, by asking others to repeat what they just said, or speak more loudly and face the listener rather than talking with their backs turned. Hearing aids help, but they are not a cure-all. Even the most sophisticated hearing aids essentially rely on amplifying all sound that enters the ear, making it difficult for the hearing-impaired person to filter out background noise.

What if there were a technology that would work in concert with hearing aids and cochlear implants to transmit sound to the listener, such as in a theater, a meeting room or a medical office reception area?

As it happens, there is such technology, and it’s not even new. It’s just not well known, at least in this country.

It’s called a hearing loop, also known as an induction loop. The technology was first patented in 1937. It consists of a loop of wire installed around the perimeter of a room. A sound source — a microphone, public address system or other electronic source — is transmitted wirelessly through a magnetic field from the wire to the telecoil receiver built into most hearing aids. As long as the user has activated the T-coil receiver, their hearing aids receive the sound directly, without background noise from the room.

What about Bluetooth, you may ask? That newer technology does have its uses, allowing hearing aids equipped with it to receive a signal from a television set or a cellphone, for instance. But in public settings it would require the user to “pair” their device with the Bluetooth signal in each venue they enter, which can be frustrating and discouraging, especially to those who are technically challenged.

Hearing loop technology works automatically with every T-coil equipped device. It’s also not outrageously expensive, considering the benefits to those with hearing loss. The Shedd Institute for the Arts in Eugene installed hearing loops in 11 rooms, including a ticket counter, for $68,000.

The Disability Services Advisory Council for Aging and People with Disabilities in Jackson and Josephine Counties is working with local coordinated care organizations to install two hearing loops by the end of the year as a pilot project to benefit their Medicaid clients who are hard of hearing.

That’s a start, but it’s only a start. This technology should be installed in movie theaters, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, meeting rooms in public buildings — anywhere people gather and need to hear what is being said or performed.

The really remarkable thing about hearing loop technology is that it is virtually unknown in the United States. In the United Kingdom, a 2010 law requires many businesses and other organizations to install and maintain hearing loops for the public.

The U.S. should do the same. In the meantime, public venues should make it a priority to install this technology.