Not a day goes by, it seems, without some announcement or other about various aspects of some one or some people’s physically challenged situation or disability. In recent years, we have started to become aware that some disabilities are not obvious to many of us, so it can only be good that such instances are brought to light, together with outlines of how researchers and scientists are listed among those who are painstakingly seeking out helpful remedies in an endeavour to give everybody a better quality of life.
In this issue of MEN we are generally focussing on audio matters and sound systems, so we asked our regular correspondent, Eric Thorn, to take a bird’s eye view of the latest research into assisting the hearing impaired.
According to the charity, Action on Hearing Loss, currently in the United Kingdom some eleven million (11,000,000) of us are suffering from some kind of audiological impairment.
Effectively, this means that one in every six (1 in 6) of us are experiencing hearing loss. In times past, it was generally assumed that a loss in hearing was something that accompanied old age. However, in our advanced society it is now recognised that a reduction in hearing quality is something, like Dementia for instance, that can occur at any stage of one’s life.
Nevertheless, like Dementia, the occurrence of poor quality hearing capacity is seen to increase with age. It is apparent that around forty percent (40%) of people aged between fifty to seventy years old (50 – 70) experience some form of hearing loss. The proportion increases to seventy percent (70%) for those members of our population who have reached their seventieth birthday and beyond.
Note that, in addition to these statistics of persons coping with some form of hearing disability, it is estimated that a further 3.7 million people with audible range failure are either employed or are of working age. This has to be regarded as an approximation because it is often the case that people are either blissfully not aware of, or are seriously unhappy to positively accept, the negative dilemma of the onset of hearing impairment. As a consequence, there is generally a delay before individuals take the plunge to seek any personal help for their diminishing quality of hearing. It follows that only those who do seek a professional diagnosis are noted to be included in the published information.
Whilst I was undertaking research prior to writing this feature, a noticeable number of people I spoke to told me that they could well be experiencing a loss of hearing. Their problem was apparently that they were unaware of what to do about it. Most of these individuals had gained the impression that all treatments for hearing difficulties were somewhat expensive.
To clarify the situation for these acquaintances and also any concerned MEN readers, anybody resident in the United Kingdom (UK) who is registered with a National Health Service (NHS) General Practitioner (GP) may, usually by prior appointment, visit their GP to request a hearing test, in which case the GP will refer the patient to the audiology department at a hospital. In the event that the test results do indicate some loss of hearing, the consultant will discuss the outcome and suggest any available remedies. Such suggestions generally include a menu of hearing aids. NHS hearing aids, batteries and aftercare are generally provided completely free of charge.
Increasingly, commercial high street companies, notably Opticians, are now offering free hearing checks. It seems to be becoming the norm for Opticians to double up as hearing consultants: I checked this out in the London Borough of Harrow and discovered that both Boots Opticians and Specsavers were among those outlets providing free hearing tests. This practice is to be commended as it puts free of charge hearing tests well before the public eye and tests are available to all people, irrespective of whether they are registered with an NHS General Practitioner.
From a cost point of view, I suspect that most individuals appreciate the benefits of having their hearing health checked out at no charge. With regard to the commercial companies, however, my personal understanding (at the time of writing) is that charges are applicable for any prescriptions such as hearing aids. Note that there is no obligation to take up the offer of such prescriptions despite having a test.
Equality Act 2010
Upon raising the topic of hearing at various venues including churches, schools, theatres and other public places, it came as no real surprise to learn that most of these had Induction Loop systems installed. This reminded me of a previous MEN feature debating this very issue, available to read online at http://www.cwponline.co.uk/hearing-the-message/.
What did surprise me was that some of these organisations may have had a misunderstanding concerning some legal requirements for installing and operating audio enhancing hardware. Most, if not all, had installed equipment including Induction Loops to ensure that they comply with the Disability Discrimination Acts 1995 and 2005. My surprise was that the misunderstanding emanated from the reality that they had not realised that this legislation was superseded in the UK (except NI) by the Equality Act 2010.
When I queried this, it was apparent that they were confused by the title, Equality Act, assuming that this referred to other matters including sex discrimination and equal pay settlements, for instance.
I suspect that they are not alone in this misconception, despite relevant government publicity. So, it is important to recognise that the Equality Act 2010 replaced all previous DDA (Disability Discrimination Acts). This legislation declares that a disability is a physical or mental condition which has a long-term and substantial effect on the daily life of an individual.
The Citizens Advice Bureau have helpfully provided some easy to understand pointers to how the 2010 Act defines disabilities. Problems with sight or hearing come into this, as can be seen from this online page: https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/law-and-courts/discrimination/protected-characteristics/what-counts-as-disability/.
Readers should be aware that the above reference to UK 2010 legislation is not applicable in Northern Ireland, where the Disability Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 and any subsequent amendments applies. See also: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/nisi/2006/312/contents/made.
In the not-too-distant past, hearing aids tended to be rather large and clumsy looking. Some models were so large that a modicum of users often felt embarrassed to be seen wearing such items. The units themselves operated in an analogue structure which, at one time, was considered to be amazing technology.
But over the past few years, electronic technologies have developed at such a grand pace that just about everything electronic has shunned analogue in favour of modern digital operating frameworks. Fashionable digital equipment boasts the advantages of being made in tiny sizes that are highly reliable. Contemporary digital hearing aids, being small, are noticeably discreet and can therefore be worn with no cause for embarrassment. Indeed, many current hearing devices are considered to be invisible when worn!
A further bonus for the user is that some of these (but not all) futuristic devices generally tend to be self-adjusting by default. So, for example, there is no manual switch to operate in order to tune in to either Induction Loop or other systems. The internal microchip automatically locates Induction Loop, Infra Red and/or Bluetooth as required.
As with other electronic hardware, a digital hearing aid is effectively comprised of a miniature super computer. Not only do these minuscule units help to obliterate any embarrassment caused by wearing them, they can usually filter out any unwanted irritating background noise. And they proffer good news in the sense that as their popularity increases prices are becoming fairly competitive.
The end is near
Hearing aid development is continuing to advance just as quickly as countless other electronic technologies. Traditional analogue Induction Loop system amplifiers have morphed into digital systems.
Competing with Induction Loop installations, fresh ideas not conceivable just a few years ago have now entered the hearing arena. Infra Red systems are increasingly being installed in places such as theatres, museums and a variety of tourist attractions. With Infra Red transmitters hotly replacing Induction Loops in these venues, one representative suggested to me that this could mark the beginning of the end for Induction Loop. The end is near he quoted, as he presented his view that Infra Red could well be a nail in the Induction Loop coffin.
At some time in the future that prediction may well prove to be correct. Personally, I am not so sure. As I sit here on my imaginary fence, coming in on the horizon I view live digital technology of the moment that causes me to predict that the real nail in the Induction Loop coffin doubles up as a nail in the Infra Red coffin.
Yes, your current writer has his own prediction! I believe that the real future for hearing technology lays within the realm of Bluetooth. This is almost certainly, but not necessarily, in the distant future, so Induction Loop and Infra Red will, until further notice, continue to play their part in assisting the hearing impaired.
Most of us are familiar with Bluetooth wireless technology for all manner of devices used on a day-to-day basis. Cordless computer mice and keyboards, cordless earphones and, increasingly, remote controls to operate everything from lighting to heating.
The name Bluetooth reflects the Scandinavian origins of the technology. It is named after a 10th century Danish Viking, King Harald Blåtand (translating as Bluetooth in English). He united and controlled Denmark and Norway, hence the association of uniting devices through Bluetooth. Legend has it that he liked eating blueberries so much that his teeth became stained with the colour of the fruit, giving rise to his name!
Initiated some two decades ago, Bluetooth is constantly developing through the co-operation of major interested companies. The system transfers data between electronic devices, using high frequency radio waves to transmit without any annoying interference or security risks. It is generally thought of as the premier universal wireless connection for everyday domestic products such as Smartphones, MP3/4 players and televisions, although it has also found a niche in the industrial field.
Boffins interested in more information are invited to visit www.bluetooth.com.
Bluetooth hardware can often connect with a number of different Bluetooth enabled items. Somebody using a Bluetooth hearing device, for example, could also connect to Bluetooth enabled mobile/cell phones, tablets, computers, et al, although they may need to incorporate an additional small piece of hardware known as a Bluetooth Streamer. Most users of a Bluetooth Streamer either wear it around their neck or place it in a pocket.
Bluetooth Streamers get their power from a rechargeable battery. For those who use their Bluetooth Streamer all day, it is probably a good idea to charge the battery every night even if it is not completely drained. Even better, obtain a second battery to ensure that there is always a fully charged battery available.
Some of today’s hearing aids can even work as wireless headphones, connecting via Bluetooth to phones and televisions. And just a couple of years ago came the launch of the world’s first Internet connected hearing aid.
Who can imagine whatever amazing things are to come?
Churches, schools, and other places that have an Induction Loop system in their auditorium may consider upgrading this to, say, a Bluetooth® system. Rather than replace a system at this present time, a practical idea is to have the best of both worlds.
For Bluetooth all that is required is the installation of a Bluetooth® transmitter. These units can be plugged into, or wired into, the existing audio amplifier. Dependent upon the size of venue, and therefore the signal strength needed, such hardware costs from around £35. Amazon UK boasts a reasonable choice online at https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=bluetooth+audio+transmitter&rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3Abluetooth+audio+transmitter.
For more information on the latest hearing and audio streaming technologies, and even more about hearing loss, please visit www.actiononhearingloss.org.uk. In addition to the readable web pages, there are links for quality downloadable leaflets.
Eric A. Thorn