On July 17th the ICC/ANSI A117.1 Consensus Committee on Accessible and Useable Buildings and Facilities passed a motion, nearly unanimously, to modify the building codes for accessible standards under the ADA guidelines section 706: Assistive Listening Systems. The modification will now specify that “Where hearing loops are installed they shall comply with IEC 60118-4 (2006)”

The IEC 60118-4(2006) induction loop standard specifies the allowable magnetic background noise, the maximum field strength of the signals, and the frequency response of the magnetic field in an induction hearing loop.  The levels it sets for hearing loop performance are tied to the requirements for telecoil performance in hearing aids which will appear shortly in a new edition of the hearing aid standard IEC 60118-0. For more specific information regarding the loop standard see here and here.

The justification to the committee was pretty straightforward. The hearing loop is the only system that is directly compatible with hearing aids by use of the telecoil. The hearing aid in a loop in effect becomes an integrated part of the sound system whereby the sound system’s microphones become the microphone of the hearing aid. However, the hearing aid user, whether fit in the UK, Australia or the US, can only benefit if the magnetic signal is calibrated to the IEC standard. While some users have a volume control to adjust for a low loop signal level, none have the capability to compensate for a poor quality, noisy or uneven signal response.  It is the IEC standard that specifies these qualities and without it there can be no guarantee.

The use of hearing loops is different than that of the typical FM or IR systems that require the user to pick up a generic intermediary device which needs a volume control to accommodate the hearing loss of whomever picks one up; in a loop the hearing aid itself is the receiver and the user benefits from the individualized settings of his or her hearing aid. This means that hearing loop users depends on proper installation of a hearing loop.

Ask any hearing loop user (see testimonials here) and they will wholeheartedly agree: Hearing loops that meet the IEC standard transmit clear, strong, and noise-free audio to their hearing aids. Those loops allows users to sit anywhere in the seated area and hear the same level of quality and sound broadcast directly to the telecoils in their instruments. Poorly installed loops add frustration and doubt: the user doesn’t know where to sit to get a loud enough signal, may experience dead spots, may have to hold his head sideways to hear a signal at all, the signal may be of muffled and of poor quality and the signal may be masked by (magnetic) background noise. These problems are of no concern in loops that meet the IEC standard. The clarity and understanding is excellent in those loops.

For two days I attended the ANSI A117.1 Committee meeting in Washington DC to be given a chance to address the committee in favor of the adoption of the IEC standard.  I came armed with nearly 30 letters of support written by consumers like Ed Ogiba and Ellen Semel, by audiologists such as Dr. Linda Remensnyder and Dr. Karen MacLennan, by numerous hearing loop installers who realize that the burgeoning loop industry will not survive unless a high standard of quality is adopted, by consumer advocates such as David Myers and Sergei Kochkin and technical experts in the industry such as Richard McKinley from Holland MI, John Woodgate and Julian Pieters from the UK, Stephen Julstrom from Chicago and Russell Gentner from from Utah.  The proposal was submitted by Sharon Toji who represents the Hearing Loss Association and is a voting delegate at these committee meetings.  We were so well prepared that they almost didn’t give me an opportunity to speak – “Imagine my horror!” ;o)

Many thanks go to Sharon Toji who took the initiative to make this change and Marsha Mazz and David Baquis from the US Access Board.

For the ADA guidelines on the current standards on Assistive Listening Systems see  2010 ADA Standards
For scoping requirements regarding assistive listening systems see Section 219.