Newsletter 10

1 March, 2012

In this issue

  1. iPhone 4 Hearing Aid Mode
  2. Stat of the week

iPhone 4 Hearing Aid Mode

In recent years Apple have been leading the way in relation to making popular technologies accessible to users with disabilities.

And so the announcement of a new 'Hearing Aid Mode' within iOS 5 for iPhone 4 has caused a lot of speculation, such as, "Many seniors suffer from hearing loss to some degree... Well, it looks like someone's finally taken notice of the unfortunate setbacks this condition can cause. That someone is apparently Apple."

What? Have Apple done it again? Have they really found a new way of improving hearing aid use?

Before we get too carried away, perhaps it is worth taking a closer look.

Hearing aids work by amplifying sound from a microphone and playing it back in the users ear, or in the case of a cochlear device, in an implant. The problem is that everything gets amplified, including unwanted background noise. In the case of a mobile phone, this includes sounds from the phone itself.

To overcome this problem, hearing aids use technologies such as inductive coupling and Bluetooth.

Inductive coupling works by utilizing the electromagnetic field that surrounds electrical wires. It is used in situations where direct electrical contact is impractical or undesirable, such as when recharging an electric toothbrush. By wrapping electrical wires in a loop, or telecoil, the electromagnetic field of the current can be increased. Thus a hearing aid can connect to a mobile phone without the need of microphone. Effectively, the sound source can be accessed directly.

Inductive coupling can work on a small or large scale and can be used in conjunction with Bluetooth. For example, a computer can connect via Bluetooth to a neck loop worn by a user, which then connects via inductive coupling to the wearer's hearing aid. Most University of Melbourne lecture theatres have induction loops which allow hearing aid telecoils to access the audio from lecturers microphones, if worn correctly.

Hearing aid users have been complaining for years about the lack of telecoil support within the iPhone. In 2007 the Hearing Loss Association of America filed a formal complaint against Apple. But the inclusion of the new Hearing Aid Mode within iOS 5 has raised fresh hopes that the problem has been resolved.

So how good is Hearing Aid Mode? We decided to put it to the test.

Testing was conducted with 3 hearing impaired participants who are employed as User Experience Testers with University of Melbourne's Web Accessibility Program.

Two participants have hearing aids. The other a cochlear implant.

Participants were asked to respond to telephone calls in two scenarios.

Participants were asked to make, and take, telephone calls and respond to enquiries. For each call, iOS 5 Hearing Aid Mode was set to either on or off. They were then asked to rate and describe their listening experience.

Participants did seem to notice a difference in the sound of the phone when Hearing Aid Mode was turned on. They described it as:

"A fuzzy noise in the background."

"It sounded a bit more machinic. There was a buzz."

"Slight static sound."

However this did not result in any improvement in the quality of what they were hearing. If anything, participants preferred the phone with Hearing Aid Mode turned off.

One participant did observe, however, that if the testing had of been carried out in a more noisy environment, the Hearing Aid Mode might have been more effective in cutting out background noise.

The key factor impacting on the participants' listening experience seemed to be the quality of the network connection.

Another important ingredient in an effective telephone conversation was the facilitator's ability to speak clearly.

One participant observed that it was not the audio quality of the telephone call as a whole that caused problems, but rather certain combinations of words. The ability of the facilitator to rephrase what he was saying was of most benefit to participants.

One thing that emerged from testing was the huge number of variables that come into play when assessing the efficacy of hearing aid usage, including things such as type of phone, phone settings, carrier network, listener environment, type of conversation, mood of the listener, clarity of the speaker's voice, and the speaker's ability to repeat or rephrase information.

Hence the need to obtain advice from an audiologist when making decisions about assistive technologies.

Interestingly the iPhone 4S contains a telecoil and has dropped Hearing Aid Mode. So it may be that hearing aid users will get a better iPhone after all.

Technology is often seen as a magic bullet when it comes to disability, but the reality is that technology, whilst often of great assistance, still falls short in many instances.

As one user observed, "It's disappointing, it really is. But I wasn't surprised."

Stat of the week

  • 16% of Australians are affected by hearing loss.
  • 95% of children born with hearing loss are born to parents who have no experience of deafness, and who do not have a hearing loss themselves.

Source: 'Hear Us: Inquiry into Hearing Health in Australia', Senate Community Affairs References Committee Report, May 2011.

Previous Issues

Previous issues of the Web Accessibility Newsletter are available here.

Contact Andrew Normand, Web Accessibility Program Leader
Phone: +61 3 9035 4867