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Hearing Loss, FM Systems and Hearing Alternatives

One day, in March of 1994, I woke up with no hearing in my right ear. As you can imagine, it was quite a surprise. I was given steroids by my physician, in an attempt to restore my hearing. Three weeks later, I lost the hearing in my left ear while driving home from work. Based on what I now know, and what Ive learned since the hearing loss, my hearing loss was the type generally referred to as a Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss. There are theories and possibilities, and maybe all of them are right sometimes, but for a given individual, no one really knows why they acquire this type of hearing loss.

My right ear is now the good ear, with an 85dB loss. An 85 dB loss is a severe hearing loss. That means that if you were to speak to me, from 6 inches away, I would not hear you. The legal definition of deaf is a 90 dB hearing loss, also called a profound hearing loss -- and Im pretty close to that. Because of the amount of hearing loss, it is difficult to avoid feedback (whistling noises) with conventional behind-the-ear (BTE) hearing aids. Also, since my speech discrimination (my ability to hear speech clearly) is very poor, background noise makes comprehension nearly impossible.

My goal was to find a hearing aid that didnt feedback, that amplified only the speakers voice, and did not amplify background noise.

The best solution for me in 1994 was one of the early FM hearing aids. The receiver was the size of a deck of cards, and clipped to my belt. A wire ran up to a button transducer in my ear. The transmitter was the same size, and a clip-on lapel mike plugged into it. I was able to hear reasonably well with that set-up, but of course, the wires and belt clip devices were quite inconvenient and admittedly, a little embarrassing at times.

As an employed engineer, I was very fortunate. My employer was understanding, and asked me what I needed to be effective at my job. We made some changes that allowed me to continue to be productive. Part of the solution was to modify my job functions such that I spent less time in meetings and customer visits, and more time at my desk, doing engineering. Other accommodations became apparent, and we incorporated them as I adjusted to my situation. I have two analog phone lines, one for a personal fax machine, and one for a TTY (early telephone based-keyboard and display [read/write] device). I still use both of those occasionally, but e-mail has become my primary mode of communication. I noticed that doctors seem reluctant to give out their e-mail addresses. Fortunately, my primary care physician is very good about corresponding with me by e-mail. I would encourage other health care providers to do the same, at least for hearing-impaired patients.

Because my hearing seemed so variable, I prepared for the possibility that I may not be able to use a hearing aid at all. My company hired a sign language instructor to come to our facility, where we had weekly classes for me and my colleagues. I was truly impressed by all the people willing to invest the time and effort to learn ASL. Because my hearing has been reasonably stable these past 10 years, I have not had to use ASL very much. Unfortunately, my ASL skills have deteriorated. ASL is like any other language. If you dont use it often enough, you can forget the particulars.

One other option I investigated when I lost my hearing was ''Cued Speech. This is a wonderful method of hand shapes and motions that correspond directly to sounds. Because it is not a whole new language, you can learn how to Cue in weeks, rather than years. After about 6 weekly classes, I sat down with a fluent Cuer, took out my hearing aid, and had a conversation at a reasonable speed. But again, like everything else, if you dont use it, you lose it. If my hearing does eventually degenerate to the point where I cant benefit from a hearing aid or a cochlear implant, or some other assistive technology, Cued Speech will probably be my first choice. It is much easier for my family and friends to learn than sign language.

I have been using FM hearing aids from Sonovation for many years now. The systems have evolved to the point where the receiver looks just like a conventional BTE aid, and the transmitter is a handheld mike with a short antenna on the end of it. In other words, there are no big boxes and no wires. These work really well in classroom situations. The teacher wears the transmitter, and the deaf (or hearing-impaired) child can be anywhere in the classroom and hear the teacher as if he or she were right next to the child. I havent come across many adults who use FM aids, but for some people, like me, they can make a world of difference.

The FM aid solves two problems for me. First, because the speaker on the BTE unit is far away from the microphone, feedback is virtually eliminated. Second, because the microphone is near the mouth of the person who is talking, the speech sound is much louder than the background noise.

In the office, the FM microphone helps in subtle ways as well. When Im in a meeting, we have a rule - you are only allowed to talk if you have the microphone. It turns out that this helps keeps the meeting orderly, because you never have a situation where several people talk at once. One time I had to leave a meeting before it was over, and people all started talking at the same time as soon as I walked out the door. They decided to pass a pen around, pretending it was my microphone, to keep things under control.

People always ask me if I have tried digital hearing aids. The problem is not that I need a digital hearing aid. The problem is that regardless of the technology, it is very difficult for a hearing aid to determine which person you want to listen to. Other people speaking nearby are just noise, as far as the conversation is concerned. The hearing aids cannot tell which is which, regardless of digital versus analog technology. Digital hearing aids can do a better job than analog hearing aids in many respects, but even digital hearing aids have issues with background noise.

As an engineer, I can tell you that it is much better to eliminate background noise before it gets into the hearing aid, rather than trying to separate the desired speech sounds from the noise electronically.

When using an FM system, the microphone is near the speakers mouth, and in essence, all it picks up is that one person speaking into the microphone. Because there is almost no background noise contained in the input signal, there is very little need to try to remove it! Nonetheless, carrying around a separate microphone is somewhat less convenient. For me, its worth it.

The FM hearing aid from Sonovation enables me to get the most out of any listening situation. Sometimes I attend conferences or meetings where there is a public address system. The microphone has an auxiliary input jack, and I can plug it into the PA system and hear the speaker without any background noise. The range is typically 100 feet, so I can sit anywhere in the room and hear well. Usually I sit near the front, because I like to use speech reading for additional benefit.

Sonovation recently introduced a digital FM system, which combines the best of both worlds. In addition to the benefits of the analog FM system, there is a digital signal processor (DSP) which helps me hear as best as possible. I use the FM microphone most of the time, and the DSP provides extra functions to aid my speech comprehension. There are several programmable modes available, one of which is just like a standard digital hearing aid, with no FM mike.

I have been fortunate. My hearing loss occurred at a time when e-mail was becoming popular, and that has been a great asset. Additionally, there have been so many developments with FM, digital, and combined FM/digital hearing aids, that the technology keeps getting better and better.

I strongly encourage adults who have difficulty due to background noise or feedback with conventional analog or digital hearing aids, to consider an FM system. Your audiologist may not even consider it as an option, since they were originally designed for children in a classroom setting. So feel free to download and print this article, and give it a try, it makes all the difference in the world.

For more information about SONOVATION, click here.

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