Article by John Adair
On Saturday Feb. 12, Loop Lane County Committee, a special committee of The Shedd Institute, hosted its monthly workshop to showcase its hearing loop installment. Hearing loops are a technology that has existed since the 1930s. They can transmit audio to an immediate space. It works by using a copper wire that encircles a general area and can be built either into the floor or the ceiling of an establishment. Any person who enters the perimeter with a hearing aid or cochlear implant that also has a copper wire installed, called a t-coil, can tap into the audio waves being sent out.
With downtown Eugene being the civic hub and cultural core of the city it only stands to reason that there would be continued effort to be more inclusive. With the introduction of hearing loops at various downtown institutions our community has taken another step in that direction.
The Shedd offers these workshops every second Saturday to allow curious people an opportunity to try the technology and become educated on how it operates. Ginevra Ralph—who will be accepting an award from Hearing Loss Association of America for LLC’s efforts—runs each event and teaches different ways to use a hearing loop. Depending on the brand of the hearing aid, a user can navigate a phone application to turn on the t-coil feature and change the volume levels from their smartphones. Others can change the program setting directly on a hearing device.
While other methods have been used by the hearing impaired community before, hearing loops don’t carry the same disadvantages as FM transmission or Bluetooth devices. There is no need to go through the extra step of pairing and signal interferences are less common. The signal sent out by the perimeter-setting copper can be tapped into by any compatible device, meaning one person can move between multiple loops in different areas without having to change any settings. It’s most famously been utilized at the California music festival Coachella.
The main drawback to hearing loops is the lack of implementation throughout the United States. During Ralph’s demonstration she expressed how useful the technology was and how easy it makes being an active listener. It is for this reason why this monthly event exists: to spread the word as much as possible and get local businesses to become interested and install the equipment. The most recent business in the area to do this is Grocery Outlet in Springfield. Despite the addition of plexiglass being installed during the pandemic, hearing loop mics at each cash register allow a user to clearly hear the cashier directly.
In a followup email I asked Ralph what the response has been like to these workshops, to which she replied, “Profound gratitude to the point [of] literally tears.” She went on to describe the three primary goals of LLC: to influence architects into having the copper designed in, get at least one loop system inside every professional office, and to get hearing specialists to include t-coils inside aids alongside educating their clients on the technology. She provided a custom made Google map that features locations that provide hearing loop services. The map can be found here. Locations included are the Eugene Airport, Downtown Eugene Library, Hilyard and Campbell community centers, Eugene Hotel and several churches.
In addition to educating people and aiding in manipulating personal devices, the event allows people to try a personal loop called a Williams PLA90, which comes with a mic. This relatively portable option allows someone to use the t-coil in personalized settings such as at home with their TV, while dining out or when having a hushed personal conversation where whispering is occurring. All of this education extends to people without hearing impairments who can test drive the technology by using compatible receivers and accompanying earpieces offered by the committee.
The Shedd is loaning out these personal devices for people to try for themselves. It hopes to inspire other local businesses to pick up on the desire for their use on a wider scale so that the hearing impaired can become more engaged with the community at large. For now, to find a location that offers hearing loops, people only need to locate the signature blue box showing an outlined ear with an arrow going through it that sits next to a “T”. These signs are a shining beckon for the hearing impaired. It tells them that they can experience the city’s creativity and spirit with clarity.