In the past few years, rapidly evolving smart-phone technology has inundated the telecommunications market. Models with more and better functionality, such as the newly released iPhone from Apple, enjoy unprecedented popularity.

But the market has not always moved this quickly. After the invention of the telephone in the 1870s, telephony evolved only gradually for the better part of a century. Even 20 years ago, the traditional analog system hadn’t changed much, which meant providers of telephony solutions for people with hearing impairment had an easier time adapting their products for the market.

ClearSounds' Michele Ahlman
ClearSounds’ Michele Ahlman

“There were limited technology solutions, and they were very simple,” says Michele Ahlman, president of ClearSounds Communications, Burr Ridge, Ill. “New products came out very slowly. Now, product technology moves at the speed of light.”

This rapid development is a mixed blessing for the hearing health care manufacturing industry. Better technology means that the hard-of-hearing and deaf communities can take advantage of improved mobility, easier text-based communication, and more powerful systems. But, as these features become the norm, hearing care product manufacturers face new challenges, such as eliminating the feedback between a cordless phone and a hearing aid, or amplifying the sound from a cellular phone.

In the old days, manufacturers could rely on the stability of analog telephones when creating new solutions, but today’s fluctuating technology and relative lack of regulatory standards make developing hearing aid compatible (HAC) solutions much more challenging. Even the old analog systems are giving way to digital platforms, such as DSL or even VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), which don’t always interface easily with telephone devices. “You can have issues with the phones that have nothing to do with the phone,” Ahlman says. “Technology moves quickly, and there are all of these great new solutions, but it presents a whole bunch of new challenges.”

Clarity's Chris Dutton
Clarity’s Chris Dutton

Consumers also may find it difficult to choose a solution when faced with such a variety of options. Still, today’s telephony products offer tremendous capabilities for individuals who are hard of hearing, and with access to education about their options, they can take advantage of telecommunications products that improve their quality of life.

MOBILE SOLUTIONS

While today’s telephones incorporate more functionality than ever before, the most important feature remains high quality sound. “You are so reliant on good telephone sound be­cause the telephone can’t lip-read,” says Erik Jørgen Larsson, audiologist and export manager for COM­Midt AS, Lev­an­ger, Norway. “It can’t see any body language, facial ex­pressions, or gestures. [Users] can depend only on the telephone sound.”

When it comes to mobile phones, however, clear calls aren’t necessarily the norm. “Even for the person with absolutely normal hearing, there’s a difficulty using mobile phones,” says Chris Dutton, marketing communications manager for Clarity, a division of Plantronics Inc, Chattanooga, Tenn. “That’s because you have problems with the networks where the calls get garbled or the reception is poor. And, as for the phones themselves, a lot of them don’t produce good-quality sound.”

COMMidt Blues
COMMidt Blues

For the hard-of-hearing and deaf communities, these problems are compounded by hearing aid compatibility issues and the fact that most mobile phones and headsets are designed for use in only one ear. “Mobile and cordless telephones make noise and disturbances when they are put up against a hearing aid,” Larsson says. “The sound from the mobile phone itself is too weak, and the speech discrimination decreases because they can only hear in monaural.”

To address issues with mobile phones, COMMidt offers a line of neck loops designed to interface with a variety of models of both phones and hearing aids that use telecoils. The Blues neck loop offers Bluetooth™ compatibility, which means that customers don’t have to use a connector when using the telephone. The neck loops are designed to offer good sound quality in both ears, to be compatible with hearing aids that offer the T or MT mode, and to interface with a variety of accessories.

ClearSounds CLA7-2Open
ClearSounds CLA7-2Open

“We offer a wide range of accessories to extend the use of all neck loops, especially external microphones that they can use as amplifiers for general conversation,” Larsson says. “Some years ago, [people] used four or five different products. Now, we hope that we can help them in the same situations with only one multifunctional neck loop.”

ClearSounds also offers a neck loop, the CLA7, which features a built-in microphone for hands-free use while making and receiving calls, and it offers up to 30 dB of amplification. “The neck loop that we have is extremely effective, and it’s working really well with cellular as a solution,” Ahlman says.

Of course, cellular phones themselves still have a long way to go as far as ensuring proper sound quality, and future advances for hearing care products depend on these developments. “We hope that the developers of telecommunications have more focus on sound quality and sound strength,” Larsson says.

HOME AND OFFICE OPTIONS

For the home and office, cordless phones are popular choices because people enjoy the mobility—as well as the security in independent living situations—these products afford. With telecoil compatibility, many options successfully reduce feedback and other disturbances on the line. But Ahlman cautions that every home needs a corded option as well. “You should not be without a corded phone,” Ahlman says. “Cordless phones will die; they will go out in power outages. They don’t provide the reliability that a corded phone does.”

Clarity C4230HS
Clarity C4230HS

Today’s desk phones for the hard of hearing now offer a variety of features that weren’t available before, including caller ID. The market for amplified telephones designed for mild hearing loss is fairly aggressive, which means users have plenty of options. “Typically, you’ll find that the majority of people who experience mild hearing loss are OK with something that they’re going to pick up off the shelf,” Dutton says. “When it gets into the moderate/severe hearing loss, that’s when you get to that more specialized technology.”

There are several factors to consider for those with moderate to severe hearing loss, and new technology is making a significant difference. “It’s not just about the volume, not just about the gain,” Dutton says. “If you’re making a bad call loud, it’s still a bad call. That’s where the technology becomes so critically important.” This means investing in features such as sound processing through a computer chip that allows users to reduce background noise, cancel side-tone echoes, and have active noise reduction.

Telephone products for the hard of hearing also feature improved designs that are both more modern looking and functional. This month, Clarity launches the Clarity Professional C4230, a 5.8 GHz cordless telephone with up to 50 dB of amplification. The phone design was inspired by the look and feel of an ice cream scoop. The idea is to make it easier for older users to hold the phone, while the scoop-shaped ear piece molds around the ear and accommodates hearing-aid users better. “It helps give it a depth of sound, a nice richness to the sound, all while looking very cool,” Dutton says. The phone also features a speakerphone capability and the option to play back messages at a slower speed.

Clarity C120HS
Clarity C120HS

As technology evolves, Dutton says that even more exciting features will emerge on the market. “We used to have capacitors and diodes in our phones, and now you’re talking about a single chip that can process 50 million instructions per second—and that’s amazing,” he says. “That’s what people are gong to expect now. They’re going to expect phones that not only look great but also sound great.”

CALL TO ACTION FOR COMPREHENSIVE HEARING CARE

As baby boomers enter their senior years, more companies are breaking into the health care sector to anticipate the needs of this growing market, and this includes increased interest in amplified telephones and other technologies for those with mild hearing loss. Larger companies, such as General Electric, have announced a full range of products for the hard of hearing, and even smaller businesses have developed inexpensive amplifiers and other products that are sold through drugstores and office-supply chains.

Both Dutton and Ahlman welcome this market growth, because it creates more awareness for telephony products, as well as healthy competition in a relatively small industry. However, they share the concern that consumers may not know how to find the best-quality products for their needs. For example, many amplified telephones advertise 30 dB of gain, but it is not always clear whether this includes the 12 to 18 dBs required for normal telephones. In some cases, customers receive only twice the normal level of gain instead of the full 30 dB increase.

“If two phones are on the shelf, and they both say 30 dB, which one actually has a full 30 dB of gain?” Dutton says. “It’s a very immature market right now, and there’s no real regulation in place that says what a phone does in relation to any kind of standard set in the industry.”

As more companies enter the market, Dutton expects to see more efforts from government agencies to regulate these types of discrepancies. “It’s exciting because we can really work to set those types of regulations so that the community as a whole benefits,” he says.

COMMidt Tango
COMMidt Tango

In the meantime, for best results, users should be able to test equipment in the store to ensure compatibility with their hearing aids and other devices before they make a purchase. ClearSounds has an interactive showroom for this purpose, and customers are encouraged to try a variety of solutions. “One person might try a phone that offers a modest amount of amplification, but for whatever reason, it hits the sweet spot for them,” Ahlman says. “And another person might come in with a similar measurable loss, but it just doesn’t work. Then they try another one, and it works great.”

The ideal solution is for customers to turn to audiologists and other hearing care professionals for guidance, but sometimes this is easier said than done—especially for those who are not yet willing to accept that they have a hearing loss.

There are also unique demands on dispensing professionals that can dissuade them from putting too much emphasis on these products during hearing aid fittings. “The challenges an audiologist faces today make it extremely difficult for them,” Ahlman says. “They are in a business model that puts a lot of pressure on their time, and a lot of pressure on their ability to fit that patient with a hearing aid and make sure that is what they leave with.”

Clarity-C120HS
Clarity-C120HS

Still, educating patients about telephony devices helps address their comprehensive hearing needs—an attractive incentive for audiologists and other dispensing professionals who pride themselves on the depth of information they provide to patients. Some dispensing offices have a selection of products in their reception area for patients to try while waiting for appointments. Although this can be a great solution for some practices, space constraints as well as logistical issues for implementing a dedicated phone line for the area may be too much of a headache.

“I think the most successful model that’s worked today is when it’s just a part of the educational process throughout the course of that fitting,” Ahlman says. Offering plenty of literature at the front desk, as well as incorporating information into welcome packages and aftercare programs, can be a good start to steering patients toward “whole hearing health” solutions.

This approach also encourages relationships to develop between dispensing professionals and those patients who may not need hearing aids but have some trouble hearing telephone conversations. “You can send them out the door and hope they come back 7 years later, or you can try to look at other factors, such as whether the patient travels a lot for work,” Dutton says. “Maybe a portable amplifier would help with that mild to moderate hearing loss they have at the moment. That keeps the person thinking about the audiologist through the years, every time they pull out that portable amplifier.”

COMMidt-Classic
COMMidt-Classic

Even though integrating this information can be challenging for audiologists, Ahlman encourages them to keep trying. “Don’t give up on integrating assistive products into your practice,” she says. “Call and ask how you can make this work for you. There is no one right way to do it, but it is an important part of complete care.”

FUTURE ADVANCES

Because telecommunications technology is so tumultuous now, it is hard to anticipate what the future will hold. But as sound quality continues to improve, the line between telephone products designed for normal-hearing levels and those that address hearing loss will likely blur. “I hope that the technology flows together so that we don’t have this barrier between those who are hard of hearing and people with normal hearing,” Larsson says. For example, those with normal hearing could take advantage of amplification technology when they are in crowded settings, such as meetings.

COMMidt-Jazz T-Hook
COMMidt-Jazz T-Hook

As telecommunications becomes more and more digitally based, new challenges for developing clearer sound quality will bring about exciting developments in telephony in the next few years. “Technology is going to play a vital role in how sound is processed, relayed, and ultimately interpreted,” Dutton says. “It’s very exciting.”

SOURCES AND CONTACT INFORMATION

Michele Ahlman, President, ClearSounds Communications, Burr Ridge, Ill; e-mail: ; Web site: www.clearsounds.com.

Chris Dutton, Marketing Communications Manager, Clarity, a division of Plantronics Inc, Chattanooga, TN; e-mail: ; Web site: clarityproducts.com.

Erik Larsson, COMMidt AS, Levanger, Norway; e-mail: ; Web site: commidt.com.


Ann H. Carlson is a contributing writer for Hearing Products Report. For more information, contact [email protected]

Get more information on AMPLIFIED PHONES & TELEPHONE SOLUTIONS at:

ADCO Hearing Products   www.adcohearing.com
GE Phones/Thomson   www.ge.com/phones.net
Hal-Hen Co   www.hal-hen.com
HARC Mercantile Ltd   www.harc.com
Harris Communications Inc   www.harriscomm.com
Hatis Corp   www.hatis.com
Hitec Group Inc   www.hitec.com
Potomac Technology   www.potomactech.com
Ultratec Inc   www.ultratec.com
Weitbrcht Communications   www.weitbrecht.com
Westone Laboratories   www.westone.com