I heard what you said there
June 2, 2015 4:23 AM   Subscribe

We have some hearing impaired persons in our collective, and I'd like to find a solution for allowing them to participate in meetings with 20-30 people.

We're using a long table for meetings, and some of our members have degraded hearing - they have aids but they're not enough, particularly when those further away speak, as well as when there's crosstalk. Besides making sure that only one person at a time speaks, is there a technical solution which would accommodate their needs?

One suggestion is to have an omnidirectional mic above the meeting which would send audio to an fm-receiver, but I'm unfamiliar with how well that works. I imagine that the person with the aid might also suffer from the "speech jam" effect if they're hearing themselves speak at the meeting, so perhaps a mute button would come in handy?

We're a non-profit so I'm looking for a cheap solution to this particular meeting problem; whatever we come up with has to work though, so function trumps cost. Suggestions and experiences welcome!
posted by monocultured to Technology (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: How many people need to hear?

When I was teaching, we had a few students with hearing issues and one had an FM mic that went to headphones. This works well in a single-speaker situation.

For a multi-speaker situation, if it's a small number, you can set up an area mic and an amplifier for 4 headphones.
posted by plinth at 6:48 AM on June 2, 2015

Best answer: One of the googleable terms that might be helpful is "TV Listeners" basically they are ways for people (especially those with hearing aids) to be able to receive sound from a specific place amplified to them (or direct to their hearing aids) without having to turn up the volume for everyone in the room. Often there is a wearable part that receives a signal from the microphone or whatever is picking up the audio signals. Depending on where you are, your public library might have some of these devices available for trying out. Give them a call and see if they have assistive technology for loan or borrow or they could probably point you in the direction of a group or service who does.
posted by jessamyn at 7:00 AM on June 2, 2015

Response by poster: "TV listeners" was a practical term, thanks. I'll check with the library and some other orgs here. (Hadn't thought of libraries being a resource in this regard - is that a common US thing?)

Most people in the meeting speak at one point of another, so a single FM microphone wouldn't work - thus the omni-mic suggestion. (which I assume is the same as "area-mic")

There are <4 people who might need this, and I'd prefer to go wireless with individual volume control rather than the Behringer 4-channel box which would make it difficult for users to set volume at will.
posted by monocultured at 7:18 AM on June 2, 2015

Best answer: FM systems helped a lot of my patients in meetings. It still works better when it's one speaker at a time (people taking turns) and when the system was integrated with their hearing aids. There are usually a few different options, depending on make and model of their devices. Their providers should be able to provide them with what products could work with their hearing aids.

Stand alone systems also worked well, but depending on degree of hearing loss/set up of headphones/hearing aids then you're relegated to talking to them through the mic (sometimes its an either or situation, but not always).

There are different FM mics, but I think many of them now have a few options for set-up (its been a while since I've done a lot of work with them). So one mic could be set to omni or more focused (sometimes multiple settings). More focused tends to be better, but it'd mean passing the mic around.

Minimizing background noise is still important. Make sure the mic isn't going to be right under the ventilation system and pick up all that noise when it kicks on, for example.

Depending on your location, there may be a group or facility that works with the hard of hearing. Sometimes they focus more on children, but contacting them for suggestions of products they've found helpful could provide direction.

Assisstive Listening Devices is another term to use. It covers a wide range of devices (Telephones, alarms), but any place knowledgeable about those would likely know about FM systems (and other options).
posted by ghost phoneme at 7:45 AM on June 2, 2015

Best answer: And by better (for the directional mic) I should specify I mean sound quality/clarity. The closer the speaker is to the mic, the better signal it has to pick up. Similarly, the more focused the mic is on the source, the less noise gets picked up.

For people with milder hearing losses and better clarity (sometimes hearing loss can cause distortion, so even the best signal is harder for the listener to understand), just a little boost from them FM can make a huge improvement right out of the box. But sometimes factors, like the environment, speakers (like if someone has an unusually soft voice), and listeners (more severe hearing loss) can mean a system needs to be tweaked a bit. In an ideal world, you can find a group with experience using a set up or whoever you purchase from would be available for trouble shooting (even just over the phone). Some audiologists/hearing aid dispensers do this, so checking with your members' providers may be helpful (if they feel comfortable).
posted by ghost phoneme at 8:00 AM on June 2, 2015

Best answer: I'm an audiologist and I'll try to explain your options. It's actually quite a complicated situation, especially not knowing what kinds of technology the hearing aid users have.

All of the recommended solutions here are really going to involve the persons speaking having their own microphone(s) that transmits the signal in some way to the hearing aid users. That might mean having a set of mics or having one mic that's passed around. It's not the most convenient I understand, but the single hanging omni mic is going to be problematic for a number or reasons, especially if it's connected to an FM system. A hanging mic above a group of people talking is not going to offer a great signal to noise ratio on the output, which is going to be pretty critical if the technological solution is going to have much benefit.

My biggest suggestion is to try and move your meeting to a place with a looped room. Many churches, libraries, universities and other public spaces these days have looped rooms, and most hearing aid users have telecoils already in their hearing aids. Looped rooms usually have mics to use as well. This would be by far the cheapest and efficacious solution. Basically, the looped room has a telecoil going around the perimeter of the room. The speakers talk into a microphone that transforms that signal into an electric current through the telecoil and delivers the signal as changes in the electromagnetic field in the room created by the coil and which is picked up by the induction coil in the hearing aids. It works beautifully.

Barring that, you're next option, as has been mentioned, is FM. There are a few ways to do this, but the biggest barrier is going to be the simple fact that most hearing aids do not have an FM receiver built into them (unlike telecoils). This would require each hearing aid user to acquire some kind of FM streaming device, which would either attach directly to their hearing aid (called a 'boot') or would be something they would wear around their neck and would pick up the FM signal and then transform it into a small induction loop around their head which can then be picked up by their telecoil. The problem is that boots are expensive (~$1000) and so are streamers (~$600). Some of them may already have this technology, but most won't. Then you also have to acquire the mics, which can cost upwards of $1000 a piece. these are major manufacturer prices, and you may be able to get away with something cheaper like the Harris Communication things linked above, but I'm not as familiar with those (though they work on the same principle).

If you wanted to not have the signal delivered directly to the hearing aids themselves, you can do some sort of sound field amplification, which basically means either just having your standard PA type system, which increases the volume for everyone (but does benefit hearing aid users), or get personal FM receiving speakers that each aid user can place in front of them. Not as good of a solution, but it eliminates the need for the hearing aids to pick up FM signals.

The advantage of both loops and FM is that you can have quite a lot of receivers connected to one mic. Not all technologies (like Bluetooth, for example) have this capability, so you have to be careful. Some things only allow you to link one receiver with one mic, for example.

As someone mentioned, a great option may be to get in touch with a hard of hearing group in your area, who may have a system they can loan you. You'd just have to make sure that the hearing aids in your group have programs/hardware that enables them to connect to these types of ALDs and that they know how to do it (younger hard of hearing people always do, especially because they've used FM systems their whole lives in school - older people may not).

All of that said, it's always important to do what you can beyond the technology to ensure that people with hearing aids are able to understand. Use clear speech, face them, and keep the other noise as quiet as possible. Circles are best, as hearing aids are at their optimal performance in a radius of about 6 feet.

Feel free to memail me if you have any questions.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:19 AM on June 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: One other thought, when I worked with Cochlear Implant patients (so very significant hearing loss), the CI companies would host meetings sometimes. The meetings would have many of the ALD options described above, but they'd also have the meeting transcribed real time on a projected screen.

The format very much allowed for this (one main speaker, questions then taken one at a time). I have no idea how much it cost or if a similar set up would be at all feasible for how your meetings run, but if you want to find more information the two options were live/real-time closed-captioning/ re-dictater (I think one is software driven and one is a live person listening remotely and typing). I'm unsure what company they used.

Again, might not be a good fit for many reasons, but thought I'd throw it out there.
posted by ghost phoneme at 12:32 PM on June 2, 2015

Best answer: Have you checked in with some of the folks who are hearing impaired about their suggestions?

We (I am also hearing impaired) have a variety of strategies that we use to maximize our hearing comprehension. For example, if I were going to be in a meeting with 20-30 people, I would make sure to arrive 3-5 minutes before the majority of the participants were going to arrive, especially if the meeting were to be held in a room or layout that I didn't know about beforehand. (Well, in theory I would, assuming I'm not running late as per the norm... but that's another issue.) That allows me to drop a notepad/bag/coat at the best site for me to hear people. For myself, I have significant hearing loss in my left ear and only mild loss in my right ear, so if a meeting is taking place at one long table I will always try to position myself toward the left end of one of the long sides of the table in order to have my good ear aimed at the majority of participants. I would bet good money that your colleagues have similar strategies and would be quietly (uh, no pun intended) grateful if you pulled them aside at some point before the next meeting to get their input. (Please do it discreetly though -- speaking for myself, I'd be a bit awkward about it if I got called out in front of coworkers.)

Also think about things like minimizing background noise if at all possible (ugh, low-level TV / AC / radiator noise is the WORST for speech comprehension). And consider the lighting situation as well -- I lipread and that gives me a big boost up that I always forget about (it's unconscious) until I'm in some dim backroom trying desperately not to look like I'm squinting at people's mouths. Along that line, please make sure the meeting leader, at least, doesn't spend the WHOLE meeting scratching their nose or whatever, it's terribly frustrating for this lipreader as my x-ray vision is not working so well these days. Finally, if you do have a bit of a flexible setup consider moving the tables to be a more square shape to minimize the distance between participants (also will probably improve people's engagement in the meeting which IME decreases exponentially with the distance between Participant and Main Leader. Plus it's more democratic, win win.

TL;DR, the technical suggestions above are fine and may be more appropriate, but there are things you can also think about that may not involve any cost at all and may be of more than marginal help.
posted by tivalasvegas at 1:03 PM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh and written agendas sent out before the meeting along with supporting documents as appropriate. It's easier to follow along with a discussion when I know what the topic is, and then when I miss a beat and all of a sudden we've moved from Issue A to Issue B, I can look down and see where we're at.
posted by tivalasvegas at 1:08 PM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions all!

I'm looking into this on a request from one of our members who has a volume-increasing hearing aid. I'm not sure if it has a receiver of any sort, but I'll look into it. His coping strategy is usually to sit next to whomever is going to do most of the talking, but that still doesn't help when people across the room speak. His suggestion for a technical solution is either to have a PA and pass along a microphone, or static microphones which transmit to a headset. (He hasn't had much experience with either in this setting, so I'm trying to suss out best practices)

We have a contingent of ageing members whose hearing is degraded but not all use aids afaik. This usually is mitigated with repeat questions and taking turns speaking, but I'd like to get out in front of the need and make sure that we have a system in place to accommodate those who'd like to use it. My thinking is that we could have a bunch of FM-receivers with headsets to pass out to whomever wants it - which still leaves the question of what mic setup to use.

  • I'll look into the possibility of using another room which would allow a circular sitting arrangement. Good suggestion. This might also allow for setting up a few directional mics instead of one omni.
  • Lighting is generally good, but the long table makes LOS difficult so lip-reading can be tricky. Again, circular setting.
  • I'll make sure to turn off all humming devices in the room.
  • Dictation software doesn't work all that well in Swedish in my experience, but I haven't looked into it for a while so could be an option. Would also be useful for sending to all members after the meeting, so that's a bonus.
  • We have agendas for all meetings, but even if it's possible to follow along how far along we are, it's difficult to participate in the discussion.
  • I'm writing to local orgs to check if they have equipment or expertise we could benefit from.
Cheers / M
posted by monocultured at 1:27 AM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

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