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Deaf and Telephones

Ring, ring…

A deaf person freezes when a telephone rings. There is always a good chance, no matter what the past experience was with a particular telephone, that this call will be a nightmare. Either the line is incredibly quiet, or it is just a bad day and the hearing aid won’t couple properly, and it is a really important person on the other end of the line (“I’m calling about the application your sister made for employment with us…”).

Every deaf person interacts with a telephone according to a plethora of variables, including

Accoustic coupling, behind-the-ear aid

The microphone(s) on these types of hearing aids are somewhere on top or at the back. Some models have directional microphones which are backed by sophisticated electronics designed to filter out sound coming from the side or behind, and only pass the sound coming from the front to the ears. In any case, using a telephone is a matter of moving the telephone’s speaker around the hearing aid, and pointing it in all directions, until the loudest pick-up is obtained.

The trouble is, when the telephone rings, there is no time to do the juggling and adjustments — you are supposed to just pick the handset up, put it next to your ear and start speaking. The big problem is that the performance of the coupling is very sensitive to the exact location of the telephone speaker, and it comes across very quiet if it is not in exactly the right place. In the meantime, the person on the other end of the telephone has started talking. “Hello, yes, yes,” you say, completely oblivious to what is being said, stalling for time hoping that the blasted accoustic coupling will come good in a second… Then the line goes quiet; the person on the end is waiting for a response to the question you did not hear. You can’t get the speaker in the right place when there is only silence. “Helloooo…” says the voice quietly on the telephone. Arrgghhh….

Accoustic coupling, in-the-ear aids

Generally, these types of hearing aids are better for accoustically coupling to a telephone, due to the microphone naturally finding itself against the telephone speaker when the handset is pressed flat against the ear, and due to the fact that the ear lobe acts as a seal around the accoustic connection to seal out all outside noise. The big problem, however, is that because of this closer, sealed coupling, there is more chance of feedback hiss developing, since the sound is given a little chamber in which to reverberate. The cure is to lower the volume of the hearing aid. But you don’t want it too low, or you won’t hear anything. Again, it is a juggling act to find the exact best setting, but when the telephone rings there is no time to experiment. You just turn the aid down, pick up the receiver and hope for the best. If you miss the right setting, you have to take the handset away from your ear to adjust the volume; during this time the person on the other end of the line has started talking…

Loop pick-up

People’s experiences with loop systems vary. Some people find them invaluable, being unable to use the telephone any other way. On the other hand, other people find them unusable, not being able to hear a thing.


When a hearing aid wearer talks, the sound of their own voice completely floods the inner ear, drowning out all other sound (you can get the effect yourself by pressing your palms against your ears and then chattering to yourself — see how loud it is?). When you talk face-to-face with a deaf person, they are able to watch your lips to know that you are speaking at the same time that they are. However, on a telephone this is not the case, and callers often get annoyed and confused when they are apparently ignored because the deaf person is talking and not hearing anything.

Or they may just be fiddling with their hearing aids to get a good connection…