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January 22, 2015

The Evolution of Wireless

Wireless audio systems, designed to improve communication and understanding for children with hearing loss, have improved dramatically since the inception of the FM system in the 1960s. In fact, the latest iteration makes it easier than ever for kids to have a personal wireless system outside the classroom, an important step in helping them reach their educational and social goals.

Wireless over the years

“The first FM systems were certainly a revolution,” says Carrie Spangler, the Educational Audiology Outreach/Instructor at the University of Akron, noting that early models were cumbersome and bulky. “Kids would have to remove their personal devices and ‘put on’ their FM systems, to learn at school. These devices also required cords and a pouch in which to harness the system,” says Spangler, who has hearing loss herself. Despite the hassle, Spangler says the signal-to-noise ratio was better, and helped kids hear over distance in the classroom setting.

The next big advancement in wireless technology was the telecoil loop system, in which students could wear their personal hearing aids, and switch to a t-coil program to access FM technology.

In the mid 90s, technological advancements created the opportunity to couple the FM system to the hearing device. Users could now wear “boots” on their hearing aids and connect to a receiver. Through specific programming in the hearing aids, students could then receive FM benefit, without any cords or loops.

Spangler notes that it wasn’t long before devices became more streamlined. “The FM receivers became integrated, providing a seamless look to the hearing aid and FM receiver,” says the audiologist. “A new revolution of Dynamic FM became available. [This] provided an adaptive FM advantage, maintaining an improved signal-to-noise ratio as the environmental noise changed,” she says.

The latest evolution in wireless technology, says Spangler, is Phonak’s new Roger technology. She says it could classify as “disruptive technology,” and may even replace FM, altogether. “Roger is an adaptive, digital, wireless-transmission technology running on the 2.4 GHz band,” says Spangler. “This technology provides clear, wireless signals without worrying about frequencies or interference.”

The importance of auditory information

Stacey Lim, an audiologist with hearing loss and an assistant professor in the department of audiology at Central Michigan University, points out that much of how we use spoken language—as well as its social meanings, such as sarcasm—is conveyed auditorily. One of her research projects suggests that a teenager’s hearing devices allow her to have greater communication satisfaction with hearing peers, maintaining friendships that might not otherwise exist. Teen participants in the study also reported higher levels of self-esteem when they had greater levels of auditory access.

Lim says one way that schools and parents can provide greater access to auditory information is through the use of wireless technology. She points out that these tools allow kids “to pick up fine spectral cues and speech sounds that are important for speech understanding.” Lim adds that research shows children with access to speech through wireless technology also have a higher likelihood of using more complex grammatical structures and vocabulary, which help them develop stronger communication skills outside the home.

Disruptive technology outside the classroom

For kids who want to keep up with the dynamic nature of their social life, Phonak’s Roger Pen offers a discreet way to participate, says Spangler. Kids can follow a group conversation by placing the inconspicuous pen on a table, where it will pick up the conversation and deliver it directly to a child’s hearing device. Kids can also point the pen at someone, up to 30 feet away, to hear what they’re saying—handy in noisy cafeterias, school buses, dances and any number of other places.

With built-in Bluetooth capabilities, the Roger Pen also allows hearing aids to function as earpieces, letting the user talk on the cell phone, listen to music, watch TV, and play video games with clarity and ease.

Lana Pickerill, whose daughter uses an FM system while playing soccer, says their wireless technology has made a big difference for the girl. “The coaches did not have to yell to no avail,” says Pickerall. “The coaches… wished they had one for every player!”

Driving can also be safer with the help of a wireless system, says Velma Jackson, whose teenage daughter has hearing loss. “We use it sometimes when my daughter is driving,” says Jackson. “It’s nice to know she can hear me better when she’s behind the wheel!”

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Does language learning end when the last bell rings? No!


Kille Knobel, parent of two kids with hearing loss, is a passionate advocate of FM use outside the classroom. Unfortunately, she says, many families can’t afford the price and have to wait until the child is school age, then hope the district allows home usage. “Does language learning end when the last bell rings?” she asks. “No. So that means a child might not get on an FM system at home until after kindergarten, by which point this critical window of language learning has come and gone.”

Knobel also advocates the integral role of parents. “When you consider the deficit we as parents have to make up for in language exposure, you have countless squandered opportunities due to noise and distance – car rides, restaurants, theme parks, museums, sports, extracurricular activities; the list is long,” says the mother-of-three. Knobel says it doesn’t have to be that way, and encourages parents to use a wireless system at home to ensure their kids don’t miss out. “They get to overhear your conversations around the house, in the car, at the restaurant,” says Knobel. “Even if you’re not speaking to them directly, they’re soaking in language, slang, idioms, in cases they otherwise would not.”

Knobel thinks hearing care professionals should underscore with parents the importance of using wireless technology outside of school. She believes it could have a big impact on the confidence levels, language acquisition, and day-to-day experiences of kids. For example, last year when her son was 4, the family walked up to a restaurant for dinner. They hadn’t even stepped inside before her preschooler sensed the noise, stopped, and said, “Ah, it’s loud. We should have brought the FM!” In this case, and countless others, a wireless system can be the difference between participating and being sidelined by hearing loss.

Author Details
The HearingLikeMe editorial team includes Jill Blocker von Bueren and Lisa Goldstein.
The HearingLikeMe editorial team includes Jill Blocker von Bueren and Lisa Goldstein.