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When Is a ‘Portable Loop’ Not a Portable Loop?

Some time ago, I wrote a post asking if other hearing aid users found it difficult to find venues and customer service points with working hearing loops and, in the responses on the blog and Facebook page, it appeared that there was an even bigger issue at large and that was that hearing aid users were not all aware of what a loop and a telecoil do. Steph followed up my post with a basic introduction to hearing loops and the telecoil setting, which is present (but not always activated) in most hearing aids. As an accessibility consultant working with the hospitality industry in the UK, I am keen to raise awareness on the benefit of, and need for, hearing loops — and the way I explain the benefit to a hearing aid user is that it ‘overcomes the barrier of both distance and background noise, by transmitting directly into the hearing aid, the voice of the person speaking into a microphone linked to the loop’. However, the best explanation I’ve seen is in this video: How a fixed room loop works by American loop installers, Otojoy, the link for which was shared with us by Juliette Sterkens from Let’s Loop Wisconsin in a comment on Steph’s post.

Although I’m struggling to find good quality working loops where I live, I have had two positive experiences of using them at conferences and this has contributed to me advocating their use to our clients in the hospitality industry: well, that and the Equality Act 2010! The Equality Act of 2010 replaced the Disability Discrimination Act and it also simplified and strengthened this UK law with regard to discrimination and inequality. Here’s what is says in regards to the duty to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to improve services for disabled customers:

Service providers are required to make changes, where needed, to improve service for disabled customers or potential customers. There is a legal requirement to make reasonable changes to the way things are done (such as changing a policy), to the built environment (such as making changes to the structure to improve access) and to provide auxiliary aids and services (such as providing information in an accessible format, an induction loop for customers with hearing aids, special computer software or additional staff support when using a service).

Equality Act 2010

So, why is it that so many establishments are falling short of what’s needed?  Alistair from Ampetronic (a UK company I partner with*) posted a comment in response to my post which said:

The problem mainly stems from the nature of the Equality Act 2010 legislation, which demands that the technology is present, but falls short of stating that it must actually work to any sort of standard. Crazy! This provides companies and service providers with an incentive to go for the cheapest option that causes them the least amount of hassle to roll out, and this requirement is all too often satisfied by purchasing ‘Portable’ hearing loops. Portable hearing loops aren’t suitable for that application and shouldn’t be used. They are issued without staff training, get unplugged and put in a cupboard by people who don’t know what they’re for and often get put in a position that will provide no genuine benefit over what the hearing aid can deliver on its own. The solution is simple — fixed service point loops with desktop microphones. That should be wired to be active as soon as a cash register is turned on so no-one has to ‘remember’ about them and when installed properly they provide a good, clear signal.

Countertop Loop.This goes some way to explaining why in my bank and at the optician’s I was presented with what people refer to as ‘portable loops’: they are cheap. But, as Alistair says, “[they] provide no genuine benefit over what the hearing aid can deliver on its own.” And this is my experience of these face-to-face loops: they’re not as good as my Phonak CROS system. (Maybe a fixed service point loop would help me where there is a ticket booth window and lots of background noise but as I’ve yet to experience this, it’s too early for me to say.) But I don’t think price is the only factor determining the purchase of ‘portable loops’. Unlike the fixed service point loops (as shown in this illustration), these ‘portable’ devices are visible. When people talk or write about loops, they often use an image of a ‘portable’ loop as an illustration — and maybe this is because they can’t think how to show the fixed type, which are discreet to the point of being largely invisible. Illustrations and visible loops on countertops perpetuate the myth that these are loops – and one might assume there’s nothing else available.

Face-to-face loop.

Face-to-face loop.

If you’ve been tasked with the job of buying a hearing loop for the service point at your place of work, chances are you’ll look in a catalogue or do an online search, find a face-to-face loop, buy it and think nothing more about it — especially if you’re not an ‘end user’ of this technology. I think it would be great to have a video about fixed service point loops like Otojoy’s How a fixed room loop works video, which we could signpost people to when they are researching what to buy. There is a great article by James Flello on the Ampetronic website entitled ‘What are the advantages of fixed retail counter loops over portable versions?’, which eloquently explains why a ‘portable loop’ is not the thing to buy. If clients of mine are looking for a portable loop solution — e.g. a hotel or conference venue with multiple meeting rooms where they require flexibility as to which room they use — there is an excellent solution available and that is what I call a ‘temporary’ loop. These use the same technology as a fixed loop but can be quickly set up around the perimeter of a room and put away again at the end of the day. Often these are (quite correctly) referred to in the industry as ‘portable loops’ but, because the ‘face-to-face loops’ are also referred to as ‘portable loops’, I use the term ‘temporary loop’ when talking to clients in order to differentiate between the two. The set-up for a fixed or temporary loop for a conference room would look like this:

Hearing loops for conference rooms.

Hearing loops for conference rooms.

Recently, I was co-delivering some training in a conference centre and my (also deafened) colleague and I were presented with six or seven face-to-face loops to ‘dot around the room’ in the belief that this would somehow create a working loop for us. This illustrates the lack of understanding as to how these devices work: at best they have a range of around one metre — and that means both the speaker and listener can be no more than two metres apart. Fortunately, our training included an explanation of what a hearing loop is and how it works, so hopefully the eight loop scenario will be a thing of the past. We invite you to share your experiences of using either ‘portable’ loops or fixed service point loops — good or bad — here on the blog or via the Phonak Facebook page. Illustrations used with kind permission of Ampetronic. * Please note that while I work partnership with UK company Ampetronic (in my business as an Accessibility Consultant), I recognise that there are other loop manufacturers including Sarabec, Contacta, Geemarc, KTP and Univox Audio to name but a few. Of course Phonak is not recommending or endorsing any one manufacturer over any other by publishing this post.

Author Details
Phonak hEARo, Angie is a freelance journalist and content writer. Angie was diagnosed with Otosclerosis in her right ear at the age of 30. In 2011, she suffered sudden profound hearing loss in her left ear. She uses a Phonak CROS II with a Phonak Audéo V hearing aid. You can follow Angie on Twitter @hearinglosshour and join in #HearingLossHour on the first Tuesday of the month.