For the deaf or hard of hearing, the
world of sound can seem like a different universe but technology is providing
more and improved assistive devices to allow them to be active participants in
By Ellen Ashton-Haiste
“It’s like a person lives in the
dark and one day, one window is opened and you can see the sun, you can see the
Erica Rojas is describing the
difference her special Voice Carry Over (VCO) phone – one of many devices
available to help the deaf and hard-of-hearing – has made in her life.
In 2005, a tumour robbed Rojas of
her hearing, throwing her into a world where she felt isolated and alone.
Accustomed to being active and looking after herself, she was suddenly cut off
from everything and dependent on others. Even simple things like booking a
doctor’s appointment meant making a personal trip to the office or texting
friends on her cell phone to ask them to do it for her.
Then, one day, a friend threw her a
lifeline, taking her to the Canadian Hearing Society. “They saved my life!” she
says with emotion.
She was appointed a counsellor –
Rojas calls her an angel and says “there are many angels at the Canadian
Hearing Society” –who offered emotional
support, taught her coping skills and, most importantly, introduced her to
technology she hadn’t known existed: her VCO phone and also a device to alert
her when someone is at the door.
The doorbell and phone both use
flashing strobe lights, of different colours, to tell Rojas the phone is
ringing or there’s a knock at the door. And when she’s sleeping and someone
knocks or calls, the bed shakes to awaken her.
These devices are “very important in
my life,” Rojas says. “When I received them, I was able to see a new world, to
see a connection with the rest of the world.”
They are just a couple of many
assistive devices available for people with all degrees of hearing loss, says JoAnn
Bentley, manager of the
communication devices program and accessibility consulting with the Canadian
Hearing Society (CHS).
Many of the concepts aren’t new.
Flashing doorbells, vibrating alarm clocks and the like have been around for a
long time, Bentley says. But often they are “unfortunately a best-kept secret.
Many people are actually not aware that some of these products exist.” That
awareness is something the society is actively promoting.
The technology has also advanced,
“We’ve improved and improved and
improved over the years. So, the concept remains the same but the technology
has a more modern flare to it.”
A good example is the FM systems
that are used in theatres, lecture halls and other public venues. They’ve been
in school classrooms for many years but older versions consisted of clunky
headphones worn by the student and a microphone hung around the teacher’s neck.
They have gotten much smaller and less visible, says Bentley, to the point
where the receiver is now so tiny it can actually be clipped onto the end of a
They’ve also incorporated new
technology. Similar to improvements in hearing aids, which have gone from large
behind-the-ear appliances to those that fit right into the ear canal with
computer technology to adjust for different sounds and settings, the FM systems
can have a variety of microphone functions, for example directional for
one-on-one conversations or omni-directional for round table discussions.
When clients come into the CHS
offices – they’re in most major cities and offer a Hearing Care Counselling
Program to serve the 55-plus population in neighbouring communities with
in-home assistance – the most common requests are for help with telephones and
televisions, Bentley says.
There’s a variety of amplification
technologies for phones, including for cell phones which often don’t have
enough volume for someone who’s hearing impaired.
And TVs can be equipped with a
transmitter box that will send sound directly to an in-ear receiver. While this
allows the client to enjoy television without having it too loud for others in
the room, it also improves the experience for someone watching alone. Bentley
explains that even with the volume turned up, clarity is lost as the sound
travels across the room.
The television systems use an
infrared or an FM signal. Both are wireless but the infrared system requires
the user to be in one place whereas with an FM system they can move around the
room or the house within a range of about 100 feet.
With the aging demographic, the
hearing impaired is a growing population resulting in an abundance of research
designed to improve existing technology and come up with new ideas, Bentley
And CHS is active in promoting
community accessibility to the technology, reaching out to venues such as movie
theatres and places of worship to encourage the installation of FMor infrared systems.
“We have a consulting program where
we go out and work with public facilities to increase accessibility,” she says.
Here the provincial Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, passed
in 2005 and requiring organizations--
including employers and trade unions -- to comply with a variety of
accessibility standards, is aiding those efforts.
Bentley says it’s important to note
that it’s not just about recreation. Safety is also a major concern. To this
end, there’s a concerted effort underway this year to encourage the use of
light and vibrating smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and a lobby to get
government funding assistance for them “because it’s a hugely important health
and safety issue.”
While all devices are more expensive
than equivalents for the general population, the smoke and CO detectors are
particularly pricey, about $160 for a smoke detector with built-in strobe,
compared to the $15 or $20 versions hearing consumers can pick up at the local
With other devices, the cost
difference is not as great, For example telephones can range from $89 to just
over $200 and portable vibrating alarm clocks start at about $40.
Bentley also points out that CHS
stands behind the products, ensuring quality and taking care of repairs beyond
normal warranty periods. And, since it’s a not-for-profit organization, sales
proceeds are funneled back into services.