“I am here because I want to change the world. You know everybody does,” announced Juliette Sterkens, national hearing loop advocate for the nonprofit Hearing Loss Association of America. Sterkens was speaking at an informational community meeting in early November at the Transylvania County Library in Brevard. The event, hosted by the Brevard and Asheville Chapters of HLAA, educated a crowd of people with hearing loss, as well as hearing-loss advocates, about the benefits of hearing loops.
The Rogow Room at the Brevard library is magnetically looped to enhance hearing accessibility for those who use hearing aids or cochlear implants that have a T-coil. Headsets were available to access the loop, and real-time captioning was provided, enabling everyone to participate.
Inspired by her father’s hearing loss, Netherlands native Sterkens has been on the journey of introducing hearing loops to businesses and organizations all over America. “I always wondered why hearing loops did not exist in this country,” she said.
An audiologist for more than 30 years, Sterkens worked with children with hearing deficiencies in the Netherlands when she was younger. She said she was in awe of how much the moods of the children would change when they switched from a T-coil to the hearing loop.
A hearing loop is a wire that circles a room and is connected to a sound system. The loop transmits the sound electromagnetically, and its signal is then picked up by the telecoil in the hearing aid or cochlear implant.
Hearing loops are becoming more popular in the U.S., Sterkens pointed out. They’re available in airports, train stations, places of worship, stadiums, auditoriums, grocery store cash registers and libraries. New York City subway stations and taxis are required to have hearing loops installed.
One in 10 Americans has some sort of hearing loss, according to Sterkens. And it is one of the most common birth defects, and the third-most common health condition for people over the age of 65, she adds.
Rosemary Tuite, former president of the Brevard chapter of HLAA and now on the steering committee, organized the talk by Sterkens. “Looping is a big thing right now,” Tuite said. “It’s been a big thing in Europe for a long time, but now we’re getting a lot [of loops] in Western North Carolina.” She hardly saw any loops in WNC 20 years ago, she recounts. Tuite and her sister Kathy Borzell decided to start the Brevard chapter and sought Sterkens’ help in establishing loops in public buildings, starting with Transylvania Regional Hospital’s Carlson conference room, the first public looped space in Transylvania County. The looping of churches and other public buildings followed.
Tuite notes that Asheville now has an HLAA chapter, which meets at CarePartners. The chapter has worked to loop the Reuter Center at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UNC Asheville and is in the process of bringing loops to the Asheville Community Theatre. Tuite says she is making proposals for loops at Mission Hospital, which until now has been geared more toward accommodating the deaf with interpreters rather than providing assistive devices for hard-of-hearing people. “There’s a need for loops when people are checking in,” she points out, “and sometimes people aren’t understanding [doctors’] instructions. There are even portable loops a nurse could use.”
Jill Roberts, a member of the steering committee of the Brevard chapter, says the chapter has been instrumental in bringing hearing loops to Western North Carolina. She was initially influenced by a talk Sterkens gave in 2014, she explains, and then worked to bring loops to area churches. “Older people quit going to church because they couldn’t hear, with the rustle of hymnals and the echoes of organs,” she says, “and it was making it impossible for them to enjoy and benefit.” Roberts notes that looping churches eased the isolation of older people by giving them a reason to return. “Research shows that hearing loss isolates people, and it’s a precursor to dementia,” she adds.
Roberts is a hearing person but became a proponent of looping because of her husband’s hearing loss. “It was such an incredible improvement for my husband,” she says.
Tuite, who has cochlear implants in both ears, says she can now clearly hear everything a speaker is saying in a looped space.
Sterkens noted that the most common hearing loss affects the clarity of sounds, including consonants, which is why the phrase “I can hear you, but I don’t understand you” is very common.
She discussed three major aspects of hearing loss: volume, speech discrimination and, when aging and hearing loss are combined, the ability to discern speech from noise (signal-to-noise ratio, or SNR).
“People with hearing loss will often move closer to the speaker or ask the speaker to increase their volume,” Sterkens said. “But you know what they really need? Hearing loops, access to clear sound or improvements in SNR.”
Hearing aids are often returned with the complaint that they did not help with hearing, Sterkens explained, because the devices are limited to a 6- to 10-foot working radius. The most frequent reason for return, she added, is that hearing aids pick up background noise; in large, public places, they make all sounds louder, which limits benefits to the user.
Roberts also points out that many people are not educated about their hearing aids at the point of purchase. Often audiologists do not inform people that their hearing aids have T-coils, she says, because they don’t expect them to be used, in the absence of loops in many public spaces. But with the rise in loops, education helps people better utilize their hearing aids. “That’s what we’re about,” she says. “Educating people.”
In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, making it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities, including hearing loss. The ADA was aimed at employers with 15 or more employees and any public entity or place.
“This act proved to have many flaws,” said Sterkens, “It was hard to prove your disability, as the definition of ‘disability’ was not clear. It was probable to hear things like, ‘Well, you have a cane, so you don’t need a handicapped parking space.’”
In 2008, President George W. Bush updated the act, defining disability as an impairment that limits a major life activity.
“The ADA assumes people with hearing loss are limited from ‘life activities’ and makes certain that provisions … are made,” Sterkens continued. “The goal is to ensure that communication with people with these disabilities is equally effective as communication with people without them.”
The ADA was updated once more in 2010, requiring assistive listening systems in assembly areas where audible communication is an integral use of the space. This act created increased demand for hearing loops, said Sterkens, as they provide an easy and effective way to meet the needs of those with hearing loss.
With the quick rise of hearing loops, Sterkens began taking surveys at places of worship, including the Catholic church she attended in Wisconsin. She asked 866 people with hearing loss how well they could hear on a scale of 1 to 10, with just their hearing aids, and then how well they could hear with the hearing loop.
Before hearing loops were installed, Sterkens found that 13 percent of people heard “great” (8-10 range). Once the hearing loops were installed, 93 percent said they heard “great.”
“This was not because these people had bad hearing aids; it was because they could not hear without the loop,” said Sterkens. “Loops are easy. You get to decide when you want to use it, it sounds better, and it doesn’t drain the hearing aid battery. The microphone I have on my ear becomes the microphone on the hearing aid. And that is what is so slick about the hearing loop.”
Hearing aids have added more technical features, Sterkens explained: There are hearing aids that will automatically switch from T-coil to the hearing loop, depending on which works best. And there are mobile apps available for download on Apple iPhone that can act as the remote for hearing aids, allowing the user complete control.
“There are a variety of different loops with a variety of effects and flaws. Well-trained installers are key to successful loops,” Sterkens said.
The loop finder app is like Yelp for hearing loops, she added. The user is able to find nearby loops, rate the loop, add comments and even let the installer know if the loop is not working properly.
“We need more torchbearers — we need advocates for hearing loops,” Sterkens said. “We need well-trained installers, supportive audiologists and hearing care providers and a plan to use available funds toward installing.”
There are also many benefits to hearing professionals who advocate for hearing loops, she noted.
“[They] reduce hearing aid returns, offer an easy solution in places where hearing aids alone are unable to deliver,” Sterkens said. “They make clients more satisfied with hearing devices, and loops create PR and goodwill money cannot buy.”
Hearing Loss Association of America
Assistive Listening Device Locator and Map
Jill Roberts, Brevard Chapter of HLAA