One in six UK-dwellers have some form of hearing loss and a third of those are of working age. This number is expected to increase to 14.5 million in 2031, according to Action on Hearing Loss, meaning the need for better hearing aids has never been higher.
The rapid expansion in the number of smartphone users who have a hearing impairment has resulted in a sizable group of people being severely underserved by the marketplace; by manufacturers and networks and above those, by government legislation.
If you yourself suffer from a hearing impairment, or have an employee who does, the situation when looking for a suitable smartphone, as described in Active’s whitepaper ‘An employers guide to buying smartphones for hearing impaired employees’ will no doubt feel very familiar.
There’s a definite lack of advice out there to enable users and employees to make an informed decision, putting them in the best possible position to choose a handset which will perform to their requirements whilst not sacrificing usability or the high-level features and functions we are all now used to.
Because of this lack of information, we are often asked by users both about the challenges hearing impaired employees may face and which smartphone we recommend and so this guide has been created due to a need within the marketplace which we still don’t see being addressed elsewhere.
The problems facing hearing impaired users
To understand the problems hearing impaired users face when selecting a smartphone, lets first consider what it means to be hearing impaired. There are broadly two types of hearing loss, which can sometimes occur together.
Conductive Hearing Loss is typically characterised as damage in the outer ear, which means that they will hear noise only very faintly, or with severe reduction. Sensorineural Hearing Loss occurs with damage to the nerve pathways from the inner ear to the brain.
Although it can be treated, sensorineural hearing loss is the most common form of permanent hearing loss and people usually find their ability to hear faint sounds is reduced and that loud sounds can appear to be muffled.
There are several different types of treatment for hearing loss, of which the most familiar one to many of us will be the use of a hearing aid. Hearing aids feature a microphone and work by using an amplifier to make the sound louder for the hearing impaired user. The sound will then be delivered to the user by way of a small speaker known as a receiver.
Some hearing aids also feature the use of a technology known as Telecoil, often referred to simply as ‘T’. This is now fairly old technology but has proven to be effective, particularly when it comes to amplifying the sounds from telephones.
Existing guidance in the UK and the US
In the UK, there is a distinct lack of clarity of advice, which means that users are less informed. UK users carrying out independent research can often find themselves on US-based sites, which can then lead them to search for handsets that are unavailable in the UK.
Further still, some handsets which are common on both sides of the Atlantic do not share the exact same technology which makes them suitable for hearing impaired users.
The UK Is yet to establish any formal rules for mobile phone manufacturers or networks. The lack of government legislation means that telephone manufacturers and networks are reluctant to provide any sort of formal advice, partially because of the different forms of hearing loss, the wide range of technologies available to help hearing impaired users and uncertainty about how those factors will then play out with recommended telephones.
Compare this to the US, where the government has taken several steps to help hearing impaired users get access to a beneficial piece of technology. Through the Federal Communications Commission and the Hearing Aid Compatibility Act (HACA), rules were established for mobile phone manufacturers governing hearing aid capability.
US handsets are clearly rated for their compatibility with telecoils (a ‘T’ rating), and the performance of the device when hearing aids use something known as a microphone setting (the ‘M’ rating), both features of hearing aid technology which are briefly covered in the previous section of this guide.
Both phones and hearing aids are rated on a scale of 1 to 4 for both T and M performance, with only phones that achieve level 3 or higher counting under HACA quotas.
Manufacturers must ensure at least a third of the phones they produce meet a minimum standard of M rating. Each network must meet a minimum standard of M rating for at least 50 per cent of the phones it offers to consumers.
Choosing the right device
Though the situation will never be fully resolved until some action is taken on making the guidance for hearing impaired users clearer, Active have spent a considerable amount of time testing smartphones in an attempt to provide some guidance on the matter.
Whilst, for many users, it may still be a case of trial and error, here are some of the common handsets we have recently tested, under conductive hearing loss conditions.
Technology developments and future prospects
Though mobile phone manufacturers and networks continue to provide fairly limited advances in technology for hearing impaired users, happily there is innovation coming from elsewhere in the marketplace.
Several independent companies have been attempting to advance hearing aid-compatible technology for mobile phones for several years, with some recent products attracting a significant amount of attention and praise from users.
This, though, only provides part of the answer. Many of the innovative devices on offer carry significant price tags and are still in early versions or are unavailable in certain territories, There is also the added inconvenience of having to charge and carry another device, when small advances in the smartphones on offer in the UK could solve the problem on their own.
These are two of our favourite bits of extra technology, currently available. Bernafon SoundGate 2 - a system which uses Bluetooth to directly pass the audio from your phone to your hearing aid. In this way, several of the factors that can hamper the quality of your call are bypassed or eliminated.
eSound LiNX and ReSound Smart - designed specifically for the iPhone, this hearing aid works with an app on the phone which allows you to tweak settings, as well as stream calls and music directly into the hearing aid from the phone.
With more and more innovative devices coming on the market, we hope that the smartphone could be the portal for improving quality of life for hearing impaired users.
ActiveIT have released a Whitepaper on the subject which can be found here.
Jason Stephanides is managing director at Active IT.