According to the Hearing Health Foundation, 1 in 5 Americans have hearing loss in at least one ear, which is an estimated 48 million people. And with hearing loss, people tend to rely on visual cues instead of auditory ones. For instance, sign language involves watching a person’s hands rather than listening to their voice. For these Americans and those with hearing loss around the world, there are new technologies out there to assist them.
A Teletype allows a person to send and receive text messages through a telephone line.
Assistive technology for those with hearing loss has been in development for decades. For example, James Marsters and two of his colleagues developed the first Teletype machine capable of sending text messages through a telephone line, according to The New York Times.
In the mid-1990s, nearly 30,000 people across the United States were using Teletypes. Of course, this technology has since evolved into cell phones capable of sending text messages. While some luddites cite texting for breaking down human-to-human interaction, it is an essential communication tool for people who cannot simply call a person to talk.
Hearing Aids, Baha and Cochlear Implant
One technology that has also been essential to those with hearing loss is the hearing aid. As eHow.com explains, “hearing aids help amplify sounds for those who are not completely deaf.” Although hearing aids have been around for decades, they are evolving thanks to digital technology.
According to John Hopkins Medicine, hearing aids can be customized to fit an individual’s type of hearing loss. Digital hearing aids also come with multiple settings, allowing the individual to adapt to “situations where there is a lot of background noise” or “situations where there is little to no background noise.” For example, a digital hearing aid can filter out other conversations when a person is speaking with someone else at a crowded restaurant.
However, About.com and its users warn that digital hearing aids are not entirely superior to the older technology of analog hearing aids. Analogs are sometimes criticized for amplifying all sounds, including background noise, but they are far less expensive. One reader stated that “there is a little more clearness to the digital, but I don’t think it is enough to justify the initial cost and later repair cost.” Another user stated that their digital hearing aids often had to be reset due to static shock. Others, however, defended digital hearing aids, believing that analogs make background noises too loud and are prone to whistling.
A variety of hearing aid styles are available.
The price of hearing aids has long been a difficult obstacle for some individuals to overcome. John Hopkins Medicine explained that they are expensive because significant time and money is spent on research and development. They are also produced in low volume with “approximately 1.7 million hearing aids for some 30 million people with hearing loss” in the United States. Plus, the warranty adds to their cost.
According to Consumer Reports, hearing aids range in price from $1,200 to $2,860. However, there are alternatives to hearing aids.
One technology known simply as the Baha connects to a person’s skin right behind the ear. An implant on this device bonds directly to underlying bone, using bone conduction to transmit electrical energy to the cochlea, a part of the inner ear. As John Hopkins Medicine explained, the Baha is a feasible option for those who have a functioning inner ear but malformation of the ear canal or middle ear, since it bypasses those earlier stages.
The Baha is implanted directly behind a person’s ear.
A similar technology is the cochlear implant. These implants “allow those who have severe hearing loss to hear sounds [by] bypassing the ear and sending sounds straight to the auditory nerve,” as eHow.com explained.
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, or NIDCD, says that the device consists of a microphone to pick up sounds from the environment, a speech processor to select and arrange picked up noises, a transmitter to convert auditory signals into electric impulses, and an electrode array to send impulses to different parts of the auditory nerve. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approximates that, as of December 2010, 219,000 people have received cochlear implants.
A diagram of the cochlear implant’s features.
Credit: NIH Medical Arts
The NIDCD recommends that children receive cochlear implants early in life, preferably between the ages of two and six years. This allows early exposure to sound, which “can be helpful during the critical period when children learn speech and language skills.”
Although useful, cochlear implants are not easy to adapt to. The NIDCD acknowledges that their use “requires both a surgical procedure and significant therapy to learn or relearn the sense of hearing.” In an article in The Economist, filmmaker William Mager stated that his first experience using the implant was, in his own words, “probably the worst day of my life.” There is also the risk of infection looming over the surgical procedure.
Due to hearing aids, the Baha, and cochlear implants, the use of sign language is declining in the deaf community. The Economist reported that “the share of deaf children taught by sign language has fallen from 55 percent to 40 percent in the past decade” in the United States. “Other countries show similar patterns,” the magazine explained. Ironically, the number of college students learning sign language has risen eightfold since 2000 with 90,000 students currently studying it.
Music for Deaf People: Device Converts Music into Varied Vibrations
There are many other technologies out there to assist the deaf in a variety of ways. For instance, one device simply known as Music for Deaf People rests on the individual’s collar. As TechCrunch.com explained, it picks up on a song’s use of bass, midtones and treble and converts them into vibrations.
This device rests on a person’s shoulders and converts music into vibrations.
According to Fast Company, this triggers “the same sound-processing brain regions in those with full hearing. So instead of listening through your ears, you effectively listen through your skin.” This device, first conceived by German designer Frederik Podzuweit, could allow all people to experience music in new ways.
Harris Communications Creates Items that Produce Lights, Not Sound
The company Harris Communications sells many other practical devices to aid people with hearing loss in their daily living. For example, the company sells alarm clocks, smoke alarms, and baby monitors that vibrate or light up rather than produce noise. The door knock sensor, when hung on the front door, can pick up the vibration of someone knocking and send the message to a receiver so that the person can know someone is outside.
It’s also important to note that many technologies are used every day have been incredibly helpful for people with hearing loss. In particular, our increased reliance on the Internet and email help “level the playing field in direct communication,” as Start-American-Sign-Language.com explained. Developing technologies such as speech-to-text capabilities could also help people by providing them real-time access to text similar to those of closed captioning on television.
As technology marches forward, we can expect many innovations in assistive devices for those that need them. The Economist reported that the University of Miami concluded that we will soon identify the genes linked to hearing loss, which could allow for easier treatment. Additionally, some scientists have begun testing implants that wire directly to a person’s brain stem. Such advancements will allow people with hearing loss to enjoy music and spoken communication much like hearing individuals do.
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