What is an Assistive Listening System?
Assistive Listening Systems are a special type of sound system designed specifically to help people with hearing loss access audio services in public places by connecting them directly, and wirelessly, to a sound source so that the user can hear clearly – without unwanted noise or acoustical distortion. You could think of it a ‘wireless for hearing aids’!
Public service providers, such as shops, hotels, cinemas, theatres and houses of worship are legally required to provide an Assistive Listening solution in order to comply with the Equality Act 2010.
There are different types of system available for you to make use of. Some connect directly to a hearing aid, BAHA or cochlear implant and others require users to ask for a special receiver that can be used with neck-loop or headphones.
Hearing Loop Systems
The most common type of Assistive Listening System is a Hearing Loop – so called because in most cases the system utilises a loop of wire that surrounds a room, transmitting the sound signal via a magnetic field. They are the default solution for service providers and are the most popular with users as they can connect directly with their aid without having to identify themselves or ask for receiver.
Connecting your hearing aid or cochlear implant to the magnetic field produced by a Hearing loop will not cause any battery drain, and the field strength is significantly too weak to interfere with pacemakers.
Hearing Loops can be found in many different environments to help you connect to a sound source and are their presence is indicated by the Ear Sign with a T in the corner.
To use a Hearing Loop you will need a telecoil enabled aid with a programmed ‘T’ setting, or a Hearing Loop Receiver and headphones.
You may have to ask your audiologist to activate the telecoil/T setting if they haven’t already done so. If you are concerned about the isolating effect of only being able to hear what is being transmitted by the Hearing Loop then it may be possible to add a ‘mixed’ setting, depending on the model of your aid, which combines the sound from the Hearing Loop with the sound normally captured via the aid’s microphone.
Area Coverage / Room Hearing Loops
Area coverage Hearing Loops are designed to connect you directly to a sound source, cutting out background noise, reverberation and acoustical distortion that is caused by a buildings architecture and the distance to the sound source you wish to hear. There is no limit to how many people can use an area coverage Hearing Loop at the same time.
They function by capturing a person’s voice via a microphone, or a sound source such as a TV or audio system, which is connected to a special amplifier and transmitted via a loop that surrounds the area (or a series of loops that cover the area).
They can be found in conference rooms, cinemas, lecture theatres, houses of worship, stadiums, in the home and on trains and trams to cover audience or seating areas. Look out for the ear sign at the entry point to the room and on the walls inside.
To use this type of Hearing Loop you will need to simply activate the T setting on your aid. If the system has been installed correctly you should be able to sit or stand anywhere in the room and enjoy a clear, strong signal – unless the loop deliberately only covers certain seating areas, in which case this should be indicated on a sign at the entrance!
If the loop system is on-board a train or tram it is advisable to sit towards the middle of the carriage where possible, rather than at the edges which may place you underneath the loop wire, or even outside of it – as will resting your head on the window resulting in a loss of signal.
It’s quite normal to hear some background hum as the vehicle accelerates, just as you can hear the engine in the microphone setting, but this should not affect the intelligibility of the sound.
You may wish to only activate the T setting on your aid as the vehicle approaches or leaves a station to take advantage of the public information announcements, rather than leave the aid on T setting for the entire journey.
Service Point Hearing Loops
This type of system is designed to help with one-to-one communication in noisy environments. They function by capturing the staff member’s voice with a microphone and transmitting using a special amplifier and a loop of wire that are typically installed behind the counter. The signal produced is generally only audible for around 1.5 meters (5 feet) from the loop.
They can be found at shop checkouts, reception desks, bank teller windows and ticket booths. Look out for the Ear Sign on the entrance to the shop and at the service point where the system is available.
To use one you will need to activate the T setting on your aid as you approach the service point and generally position yourself directly in-front of the staff member. The signal should be optimal at approximately arms-length from the desk or window, and may be improved by moving you head closer. If the staff member’s voice is too quiet it may help to ask them to move their mouth closer to the microphone. Remember return your aid to the microphone setting once the conversation is completed!
Intercom Hearing Loops
Intercom Hearing Loops are designed to not-only help with communication in noisy environments, but also to provide access to emergency assistance. They typically function by using an intercom system to connect two people remotely. The intercom system (microphone and speaker for each user) is connected to an internal loop amplifier and loop of wire.
They can be found at electronic help points, car park barriers, ticket machines, as well as in lifts (elevators) and taxis where the signal should cover the entire area so multiple users can listen in. Look out for the Ear Sign on the housing or user panel.
To use an intercom hearing loop you will need to activate the T setting on your aid and position yourself directly in-front of the ‘push for assistance button’. The signal should be optimal at approximately arms-length from the button, and may be improved by moving your head closer. Never place you ear next to the speaker as this may cause your hearing aid to squeal or whistle!
Portable Counter Top Hearing Loops
Portable counter top hearing loops are available to use in 1 to 1 scenarios where a hearing aid or cochlea implant wearer knows that communication will be difficult due to distance or background noise. These are all-in-one units that comprise the amplifier, loop and generally an extendable microphone.
They can be used in meeting rooms and restaurants (at the table).
To use a portable hearing loop the aid wearer places the loop unit at a comfortable distance from themselves and the microphone as close to the person they wish to hear as possible. If the portable unit is rechargeable it is important to ensure it has adequate charge before being used.
Infrared (IR) & Radio Frequency (RF) Systems
It’s not always practical to install a Hearing Loop system as factors such as building structure, signal interference or disruption to another service prevent it. In such cases, Infrared and Radio Frequency technologies are used to transmit an Assistive Listening audio signal in area coverage / room applications.
The main difference between Hearing Loops and IR/RF assistive listening solutions from a user’s point of view is that everyone who wishes to use the system requires a special receiver, which are usually available at a customer service desk or by asking a member of staff.
Signage for IR/RF systems differs from Hearing Loops and there are some variants, however all types retain the ‘ear’ part of the sign.
IR/RF receivers can either be used with headphones or a neck-loop to connect to a hearing aid. If you know that you will be using a receiver at a venue then you may wish to consider bringing your own headphones to plug into it.
To use a receiver simply place the lanyard over your head so that the receiver lies on your chest – in this way it will not become obstructed or loose signal. It’s also a good practice to sit away from a buildings internal pillars or windows as this can also cause singla loss.
Neck-loops create a magnetic field around your head that you can connect to using your hearing aid in the same way as you would with a normal Hearing Loop system. It’s advisible to use this option if possible as the gain (volume) and signal to noise ratio will be improved, but you may need to experiement with the position of the loop to get the best out of it, particulatly the position on your shoulders.
Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) Systems
New technologies frequently offer new ways of accessing broadcast audio, and WiFi is a good example. It is now common for facilities to offer a free wireless hotspot channel for users to access the internet using their smart phone – and increasingly a didicated audio service that uses an app to select a channel to listen to.
The type of service is know as ‘Bring Your Own Device’ or BYOD as the intended users of the system are expected to be carrying their own receiver (a smart phone).
Whilst this doesn’t qualify as an Assistive Listening solution as, among other things, it isn’t freely available to anyone who wishes to use it and requires a working knowledge of how to use a smart device, it can be a useful way of connecting to audio.
Why might I experience difficulties when using an Assistive Listening System?
Unless you have a receiver or a telecoil enabled aid, Assisitve Listening solutions are effectively inaudible and invisible, which makes them prone to being accidentaly switched off or developmeing a fault without anyone noticing.
Whilst this is not an excuse for not maintaining the system properly it does go some way as to explaining why systems often fall into disrepair. If you find a system that isn’t working, report it so that something can be done to rectify it, but also ask yourself:
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