Effort underway to bring hearing loop technology here

·7 min read

Jun. 30—As a 76-year-old who is on his third pair of hearing aids, Medford resident Don Bruland admits that all too often, when he is talking to another person, it's easy to go into "the smile and nod mode."

It's not because Bruland doesn't care about what someone is saying. He just doesn't want to keep asking people to repeat themselves. Aside from that, "you have to work hard to hear," which can be tiring.

"That's why the loop works so wonderfully," said Bruland, referring to a hearing loop, a strung-out cable that works in tandem with hearing aids and cochlear implants to help people using them hear clearly.

During a recent presentation at Twin Creeks Park in Central Point, Bruland got to experience the benefits of a hearing loop in a meeting setting for the first time.

"I was so excited, because I think I heard everything that the speakers who used the microphone said," Bruland said. "It was a real eye-opener — or, I guess, ear-opener."

The meeting at the park was the first of the Disability Services Advisory Council for Aging and People with Disabilities in Jackson and Josephine counties, which has worked for years to improve effective communication in health care settings. Now that group is zeroing in on getting hearing loops installed at various locations in the Rogue Valley.

"Worse than not using them enough, I venture to guess that they're not being used at all," said John Curtis, a past chairman of the Disability Services Advisory Council, who lives in Eagle Point. "We're having a dickens of a time trying to find any place that has one that works."

A hearing loop is more than just the snake-like wiring implied in the name. It's a system — one that involves a microphone signal being fed into an amplifier, which in turn, transmits the signal into a loop of cables placed around the perimeter of the room.

The current from the loop generates a magnetic field that radiates around the room, allowing people with hearing aids or cochlear implants to hear what is being said more clearly. At least so long as they activate their device's telecoil — or "T-coil," for short — which is the receiving device inside the aid or implant.

Experts say hearing loops, first patented in 1937, didn't gain steam until the 1980s. And while they're not commonplace in the United States, the United Kingdom contains an abundance of them in most settings, from public transportation to cathedrals.

Here in the Rogue Valley, the Disability Services Advisory Council and other community entities are working to get at least two hearing loops installed locally by the end of the year as part of a pilot program. This could spur at least a dozen of the devices not only in health care offices, but scores of businesses, too.

Two entities involved in this effort are Jackson Care Connect and AllCare Health. Both are nonprofit coordinated care organizations that help Medicaid recipients get health care services, and a number of their recipients are deaf or hard of hearing.

Sam Watson, community health manager with JCC, became involved because she knows John Curtis, who suggested to her that hearing loops would be a "low-cost" option to support JCC's deaf or hard-of-hearing members.

"I looked into it and thought that this was a low-cost way in which we could potentially have a big impact ... not just on our members, but our community members, who are dealing with hearing loss," Watson said.

Stick Crosby, senior director of provider network and health equity for AllCare, talked about the importance of the local hearing loop initiative, saying it projects "a united front" between his organization and JCC.

"This is good public policy for those that are hard of hearing," Crosby said. "We've heard this from the community, those that have cochlear devices and hearing aids. (A hearing loop) is something they want; they want more accessible spaces, and it does affect the health of individuals."

In joining a work group dedicated to hearing loops, Watson and others started thinking about why these devices are less prevalent than in other places and what the deaf and hard-of-hearing community faces without them.

One person who knows the answers to these questions is Alan Anttila, owner of the Eugene-based Hearing Support Solutions, a business that installs hearing loops. He was invited to Twin Creeks Park, where he set one up outdoors to demonstrate its effectiveness for people who came to hear a presentation.

"I'm already retired, but I am doing this because it helps people dramatically. It changes people's lives," said Anttila, who lost his hearing due to playing the drums and listening to loud music over the years. "What happens when people cannot hear in group settings like churches, performing arts centers, airports — you name it — people who have hearing loss have a tendency to retreat from life because they cannot understand what's being said in those environments. So a hearing loop is an absolute godsend for people with hearing loss."

The John Shedd Institute for the Arts in Eugene has an installed a hearing loop system. Ginevra Ralph, who co-founded the institute, told the Mail Tribune the reaction among patrons was not what officials anticipated.

"We thought folks would jump for joy. Instead it was 'Huh? What is that?' and then, 'Do my hearing aids have a telecoil?'" Ralph wrote.

But those reactions did not stop The Shedd from receiving the "Get in the Hearing Loop" annual award during the National Hearing Loss Association of America Convention last week. The venue, a 70,000-square-foot building with more than 55 rooms, installed hearing loops in 11 rooms, including a ticket counter. The entire installation cost around $68,000.

Online searches on the cost of hearing loops show it can vary based on the size of the room or type of venue, but it can range from $4,000 to $200,000.

"I recommend starting out with a $350 personal loop to experiment, practice with, demonstrate to others," Ralph wrote in an email, referring to advice she'd give any entity in the valley exploring hearing loops. "If they start 'at the top' to loop a big venue and don't know what they are talking about or can't describe the experience, they are trying to run uphill in sand."

"I don't think it's an unwillingness to learn," Watson said. "There's just not a lot of information out there," she said. "Or there's information out there, but it hasn't been brought here."

Kim Andresen, marketing/PR/box office manager for the Oregon Center for the Arts at SOU, had not heard of hearing loops.

"We have four different venues that that could be applicable to," Andresen said. "That would definitely be something we would consider in the future. We try to be as accommodating as possible."

She noted that the music recital hall and building, which could get a remodel in 10 years, might be suitable venues at the university to be fitted with hearing loops.

John Curtis, former chairman of the local advisory council for aging and people with disabilities, urged Jackson and Josephine counties to become more like other parts of the state and embrace hearing loops.

"We want folks who are isolated in their homes to ... start re-engaging with life activities that, frankly, have been out of their reach, out of their hearing," he said. "The fabric of society is going to be so much richer when we get to a place and a space where everyone is participating the same. It's going to be a fairer place."

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.