Using technologies to support hearing loss in education

Caroline Mathiasen is a hearing impaired graduate student in the UK, in this blog she talks to Margaret McKay about her experience using assistive technologies to support her during her education.

About me

I lost part of my hearing when I was a young baby. Around sixty per cent of my hearing, to be more correct. My mum told me it all happened on a cold winter night, five months after I was born. In case we ever meet you don’t need to scream aloud for me to hear you. This is thanks to the use of assistive hearing technology and partly due to my long experience of communication with people who hear better than me.

silhouette of a woman

Joshua Fuller in Unsplash

I was lucky enough to grow up in a warm environment surrounded by adorable people who wouldn’t make me feel different from the rest of the world not a single moment. Thankfully I developed a strong sense of self-confidence and a positive self-image that would indicate my life in so many ways.

Higher education was a dream of mine. But, when the years went by and the time came to enter this stage of my life things started to look challenging. However, my parents had taught me to follow my dreams regardless of everything. And that’s what I did. I didn’t let the fear or my hearing disability (which wasn’t there because of my fault) diminish my enthusiasm. In fact, it was an unfounded fear for the reasons I will explain below.

The days when studying at UK universities with hearing loss or hard-of-hearing issues was challenging are long gone. Under the Equality Act law 2010 discrimination toward disabled people, including those who have hearing loss issues, is unlawful.

Relying on principles of equality, set out in this law, UK universities are committed to ensuring disabled learners can attend college/university without being constrained. From my personal experience I saw that UK universities have successfully identified their students’ needs and according to those needs have taken on board the use of the assistive hearing devices like Bluetooth streamers, FM audio systems, hearing loops, remote microphones etc.

woman listening whilst looking at picture in a gallery

Photo by Mike Kotsch on Unsplash

Unfortunately, many students fear that those challenges still remain.  From my experience studying in UK, I’ve learned that this misleading thought comes down to one thing: the lack of information. If you’re one of them, then hang on let’s dispel that myth.

Being able to access spoken information in one way or another is an integral key in attending college or university. There are lectures and discussions all the time where you have to listen and participate actively with your ideas over different topics. At the same time, you’ll spend time talking to your classmates. If you miss their words or misunderstand them accidentally because of your minor disability, this may lead to being perceived as impolite. Nobody wants that, neither did I, though it happened on some occasions.

From this point of view, the whole story sounds to be pretty intimidating. It’s actually not. I promise that it will be equally worth-attending and enjoyable as for everyone else thanks to the development of modern hearing assistive technology devices.

What are hearing assistive technology devices?

Hearing assistive technology devices are proper means to adjust the surrounding sound signals to what your ears can clearly hear. There is a variety of hearing assistive devices, each designed to assist a specific level of hearing loss. Simply put, these devices include personal hearing aids and classroom sound systems. The former refers to remote microphones, cochlear implants, individual FM sound systems, etc., while the latter one refers to different sound amplification systems used in classrooms and other facilities in universities.

How and when to in the classroom?

There’s not an arbitrary or fixed time when hearing assistive technologies might be used in the classroom. It largely depends on the needs of the lecturer and students. If a student needs the use of a particular device to hear they are free to use it, and if the help of the lecturer is required in this situation there is a duty under the Equalities Act 2010 for the lecturer to work collaboratively with the student to support the them. For example, if the student had a hearing amplification system, the lecturer would be expected to speak through a remote microphone so the student hears properly. In another situation, the professor may need the use of a sound system to convey his speech because the hall is large and many may not hear what he’s speaking.

Normally, the first days in the classroom can make you a bit nervous, until you realise that poor-hearing is not an issue only to students with hearing loss, but even to those who in normal conditions hear well. This is because university’s classrooms and halls are less acoustically-friendly because of their size, their construction or student-teacher ratio. Very often classrooms are large in size and there are many students attending the class, making it difficult to hear the lecturer. In these circumstances, the use of hearing assistive technology is a necessity.

To minimize this problem, there are often sound systems installed in lecture rooms so everyone attending the lecture can listen properly what it is being said by the professors. Often the lecturer wears a microphone and their voice is transmitted to the sound system.

That said, there may be scenarios where the lecturer would wear a dedicated microphone to link to an individual learners’ amplification system.

What types of assistive hearing technologies there are?

There are two types of assistive hearing technologies: personal hearing aids which are used only by a hard-of-hearing individual, and sound field systems which are made to help all the participants in an environment to clearly hear what is said around.

Personal assistive technology hearing aids are electronic devices that individual students wear or implant inside their ear to increase and improve the signal of surrounding sounds. There are many personal assistive technology devices you can use according to the degree level of your hearing loss.  If you need require additional intervention/participation of your lecturer to hear properly, e.g. delivering lecturers using a remote microphone (which I’ve been using during my studies), they are required to do so under the Equalities legislation. Moreover, universities have services that deal support disabled students, so you can always reach them out to help with your problem and they will certainly offer an acceptable solution.

As for sound field systems, they can make their campus facilities much more hearing-friendly. Often lecture theatres are large, often heavily populated with students. In addition to this, the structure of the walls makes sometime the environment less acoustic-friendly. To tackle this issue, most classes have incorporated modern classroom amplification systems, making things easier for students and for lecturers.  These embedded amplification sound systems which are often designed as an integral part of newly built or refurbished buildings help make campus life more hearing friendly for everyone, not just people with hearing loss.

The classroom amplification system is a set of devices connected to increase the volume and clarity of the voice in the lecture settings, so everyone hears well. These devices are made up of five components:

  • Teacher’s Microphone
  • Wireless transmitter
  • Students’ Microphone
  • Wireless receiver
  • Loudspeakers

When a lecturer speaks their voice is transmitted through wireless to the wireless receivers scattered around the class. Then the wireless receiver receives the professor’s voice as an electromagnetic wave and in the loudspeaker, the voice is transmitted into a voice with higher volume.

There are many types of classroom sound amplification systems used at UK universities. Personally, I’ve encountered these types of assistive hearing technologies:

  • FM systems (most common ones)
  • Loop Induction systems
  • Infrared systems

Looking ahead

To recap, your studying experience in UK is about academic and personal growth and surely about joy, regardless of your physical disabilities. These universities show a higher level of awareness to their students’ needs and in line with this, they apply the use of the latest technology improvements to guarantee everyone receives equal treatment. Their modern facilities are acoustic friendly while at the same time you’re free to use personal hearing aids even if they require the participation of the lecturer. In addition, their academic staff and student community are highly supportive so at the end of your course, you won’t only get a degree, but also a unique studying experience that will influence the rest of your life.

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