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The Mobile Phone Challenge

"Mobile phones. Can't live with them. Can't live without them." That was my complaint to my wife after our 16-year-old son recently lost his mobile phone.

It's not literally true, of course. When I lost most of my hearing nearly four years ago, I had to get by without using any phone at all for six months. It didn't kill me, but it sure wasn't fun. Eventually, with the right telecoil-equipped hearing aids, my comprehension improved to the point where a simple phone conversation was possible with a good connection on a land line. Then, through a long process of trying new amplified phones and assistive technologies, I gradually worked my way back to regular usage. Today I'm nearly as dependent on the phone again as any normal-hearing American. Our family of four can't seem to get through a busy week coordinating logistics of school pickups, jobs, and other activities without constant communication on our mobile phones.

But getting a wireless solution that would work for me wasn't easy. In fact, before I finally found a usable mobile phone a few months ago, I was a broken cog in our well-oiled family communications machine. In spite of insistent prodding by the Federal Communications Commission, until very recently wireless phone manufacturers and service providers were unable to provide the right mix of hearing-aid compatibility, volume amplification and assistive listening accessories that would enable me to use a mobile phone like a normal hearing person.

When I tried out various mobile-phone handsets in the early days of my hearing loss, either there was constant buzzing, rendering them completely useless, or they didn't provide enough clarity or amplification for me to hear normal conversations. With friends, family and business associates expecting me to be available 24-by-7 like anyone else, not having the wireless connection took its toll. As with so many other situations--dinner parties where I couldn't follow the conversation, trips to the theater where I hadn't read the script in advance, or meetings at work where too many participants or poor acoustics sidelined me completely--I was relegated to the role of lonely outsider, an uninformed bystander who had to work overtime just to keep up with the normal flow of events.

I still had an old Nextel mobile phone which I had loved before I lost my hearing. But even with a Motorola induction neck loop that plugged into the handset and transmitted audio signals directly into both ears through the telecoils in my behind-the-ear hearing aids, I couldn't get enough amplification. Any conversation resulted in constant interruptions as I asked the caller to repeat what he or she said, confirmed I got it right, and then worked to re-establish the train of thought as I finally allowed the caller to move on. I kept the mobile phone handy for emergencies and for check-ins with my wife that required no more than a yes or no response, but it was nearly impossible to use for business or even conversations with friends who understood my predicament. I dreaded the occasions when I had to use it.

Amplified Land-Line Phones Lead The Way

Getting a land-line solution, while it took some doing, had been easier. When ClearSounds came out with its CSC50 amplified phone offering a 50-decibel amplification boost, things came together. Because the set has 2.5 mm and 3.5 mm ports for neck loop and headphone jacks, I was able to use either my 40-inch Williams Sound neck loop or my Hatis Director headset to get conversations in stereo through the telecoils on my hearing aids.

Getting the phone signal into both ears made the critical difference. I've got such different hearing loss in each ear that neither works well on its own, but they seem to compensate for each other's shortcomings when they work together. Today I still find certain phone conversations on the land line difficult--especially conference calls--but then I hang the neck loop wire over my ears to boost the volume further through direct contact with the hearing aids.

The land-line options are getting better all the time. Clearsounds offers amplified, hearing-aid compatible amplified wireless handsets with a base station connected to a land line for use in the home. Another manufacturer, Clarity Products, also offers both wired and in-the-home wireless handsets offering similar amplification, digital-signal-processing (DSP) sound shaping, and jacks for neck loops and headsets.

The FCC Hearing-Aid Compatibility Mandate

Until recently mobile phones offered few of the same conveniences as my land lines. But on September 16, 2005, the world changed. That's the day the Federal Communications Commission deadline for hearing-aid mobile phone compatibility went into effect, requiring each of the major wireless carriers to offer at least four hearing-aid compatible phones. The new standard required manufacturers to integrate shielding into their handsets to reduce radio-frequency emissions that interfere with the electronics in hearing aids and create all buzzing and other interference. Handsets with enough shielding to enable use with most hearing aids get a hearing-aid-compatibility (HAC) microphone rating of M3 or M4, with "3" a passing grade indicate the handset meets the standard and "4" exceeding the standard.

Better yet, the FCC set a September 2006 deadline for digital wireless phone manufacturers to provide carriers with at least two mobile phone models compatible with telecoils in hearing aids. Handsets will be tested and assigned either T3 or T4 rating to indicate their level of compatibility with telecoils. T-coil compatibility is extremely helpful because it bypasses the microphone on the hearing aid and transmits the mobile-phone signal directly through the hearing aid, further reducing the chances of distortion. Nearly all wired land-line phones are compatible with T-coils. When I use a phone with the hearing aid T-coil setting on my good right ear turned on, with the microphone setting turned off, and with the volume turned all the way up, I can often use my amplified land-line phone successfully with just one ear.

However, because the FCC had issued waivers to several of the players on previous deadlines, I was skeptical about the wireless manufacturers' and service providers' commitment to meeting the needs of people with hearing loss. Even microphone-level M3 compatibility seemed too good to be true, much less T-coil compatibility. Even if hearing-aid compatible mobile phones were available, I fully expected I would confront phone company salespeople who knew little or nothing about the new regulations. I expected the hearing-aid compatible phones would be too costly and collecting dust on the back shelves.

When I renewed my search for a mobile phone that would work for me, scouring the leading players' web sites and visiting the wireless carriers' retail stores, I was more than pleasantly surprised. I discovered that the major manufacturers had all made efforts to promote the fact they have new hearing-aid compatible handsets. The salespeople I encountered all had some level of familiarity with the new requirements.

Among carriers, Sprint was attractive because I knew it managed relay services for deaf consumers, so the company had already made an investment in understanding hearing-loss issues. I also liked T-Mobile because it had put a lot of thought and energy reaching out directly to hard-of-hearing consumers with its Sidekick II product, a combination phone, camera and personal digital assistant with slick text messaging and email integration. Ultimately, I narrowed down my search of service providers to Verizon Wireless, because it's got the biggest network in my region and the most attractive family-share plans. Its web site listed more than 30 available phone models, and although I didn't find any handsets with M4 ratings, many had M3 ratings prominently displayed and clearly explained.

Caveat Emptor

That's the good news. The bad news is that the process still required a tremendous amount of research, trial and error, and haggling with salespeople before I got my needs met. That shouldn't have surprised me, of course. Anyone who has bought a hearing aid knows that it takes some work to get the right fit and that there is an adjustment process to the devices. Also, anyone who's ever bought a mobile phone knows the mind-boggling complexity involved with choices of phones, service plans, rebates, contracts, usage, minutes and other factors. When you combine hearing aids and mobile phones, the operative rule is caveat emptor: "buyer beware."

We experienced both the good and the bad at the Verizon Wireless store where we ended up buying a family package. We had a knowledgeable salesman who spent nearly two hours patiently walking us through all the options. He knew what a neck loop was and even cleared up my initial misperception about the M3 rating. I had mistakenly thought M3 meant compatibility with my T-coils. It doesn't. M3 only means compatibility with the hearing-aid microphone, not with the T-coils, and our Verizon salesman was honest enough to point that critical distinction out to me.

Of course, then he tried to steer me around the issue by telling me nearly all the phones on display had 2.5 mm jacks, so I would be able to use my neck loop with my T-coils all the time anyway. He tried to convince me to cut my research short by only trying the handsets with the neck loop. I had brought both my Motorola neck loop and my new Clearsounds CLA 7 amplified neck loop product to test with the phones, but I knew there would be many instances when the neck loop would be cumbersome or inconvenient if I didn't have to use it. So, I insisted on trying all the phones with and without the neck loops, and with and without my T-coil setting turned on, just in case I found a handset that would work with them in each mode. To his credit, our salesperson patiently stuck with me through the long process.

I nearly bought a powerful M3-rated Motorola handset because its exceptional amplification worked pretty well with my hearing aids. I was able to hear a regular conversation, more or less, with the hearing aid in my good right ear set in its normal microphone mode at its highest volume. I was disappointed to discover that with my T-coil setting on, there was complete interference. So, I kept trying more handsets. It was an arduous process, and my salesman nearly gave up on me. But, when I tried a very affordable M3-rated model from Lucky Goldstar, I hit pay dirt. The amplification wasn't special with my hearing aid on its normal setting, but when I turned on the T-coil setting in my hearing aid, I was stunned to hear the signal as perfectly as I hear it on my land line at home, even without my neck loop. Bingo! I had heard that some mobile phones might work directly with my T-coils, even without certification, so I'd continued trying them out. But I didn't really believe I would find a handset that worked well. Hearing a clear mobile phone signal for the first time since my hearing loss was like stumbling on an oasis in the desert.

What The Future Will Bring

My entry-level handset, with a contract featuring very-low-cost family-share minutes, is about as affordable a mobile-phone solution anyone could buy. However, I admit I was sorely tempted instead to upgrade to a powerful multi-function hand-held communicator for phone-plus-email-plus-camera-plus-you-name-it. In addition to the Sidekick II, there is the Blackberry phone, the Palm Treo Smartphone and the slick new Motorola Q phone, to name just a few. I've already got a very inexpensive email solution with a simple old AT&T wireless Ogo device (since acquired by Cingular). It gives me wireless access from anywhere to all my email accounts for only $15 a month, which is a lot less than I'd have to pay for the convenience of having email and other goodies bundled in the same handset as my mobile phone. So, for the time being I carry two devices, one for voice and one for email.

But I have no doubt there is a personal digital assistant in my future. The technology is only going to get better, and my experience researching the latest mobile phone alternatives has convinced me the manufacturers and carriers are finally truly committed to developing and delivering new and better assistive technologies for people with hearing loss. T3 and T4-level compatibility for telecoils is only the start. Not only will we see more advanced, user-friendly messaging and email services integrated with phone service in hand held devices. More important, additional new capabilities are possible that provide even more direct benefit to people with hearing loss.

With increasing numbers of hand-held devices featuring crisp video and high-bandwidth downloading capability, there is no doubt there will be videophone service available at some point on future generations of hand-held communicators. What a luxury it would be to apply speech reading skills to a normal mobile phone conversation! The technology is already available to enable you watch the other party on the screen while talking and listening with a Bluetooth earpiece or headset. All it will take is an enterprising manufacturer putting the right pieces together as transmission and hardware costs continue coming down.

Once real-time telephone captioning services such as Captel are more widely available, I also have no doubt we will see the day when it's possible to get closed-captioning on the screen of your hand-held device. Again, the technology to do it is available today. As the baby-boom generation of TV watchers with growing hearing loss becomes increasingly dependent on closed captioning to catch the audio they are missing on their favorite shows, wireless carriers will soon see there's a lucrative and growing market for wireless phone-captioning services.

Those are only several examples of what we have to look forward to. Living with hearing loss will never be easy, and mobile phones will always present their own special challenges. Taking advantage of the new technologies will take a lot of work, but the payoffs will be worth it. Just remember do your research, shop around, and take plenty of time to try things out for yourself, even when salespeople are less knowledgeable than you would like. When the time comes to put your money on the counter, remember the cardinal rule: caveat emptor!

David Copithorne is a communications and marketing consultant who writes a popular hearing-loss blog, HearingMojo.com, exploring assistive listening technologies and other means of coping with hearing loss.

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