Assistive Devices for Impairments in Hearing, Voice, Speech, and Language

Assistive Devices for Impairments in Hearing, Voice, Speech, and Language

Last Edited September 25, 2018 by Garenne Bigby in Accessibility Testing

Most people take being able to communicate without assistance for granted every day. There are people all over the world who are hearing, voice, speech, and language impaired, and it can be difficult for them to communicate their needs to others without using devices. Some people who are hearing, voice, speech, or language impaired were born with these disabilities and might not know any different. Others might have lost their hearing or ability to communicate due to illnesses, age, or even accidents.

Those without impairments don’t think twice when they pick up the phone to call someone or communicate their needs with family members. Not only is it a luxury to be able to communicate, but it is also a need. Being able to communicate keeps us safe.  If the only way to know there is a fire in your home is to be woken up by a fire alarm, what about a person who is hard of hearing?

Those with impairments will need assistive devices for daily activities that most of us don’t think twice about. It is also important to note that these people with impairments are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Here is all you need to know about assistive devices.


What Are Assistive Devices?

Any type of technology or additional device that assists a person in communicating is considered to be an assistive device. These devices might also be referred to as assistive technology. These two phrases can be used interchangeably and basically have the same definition. It is an umbrella term, and these devices help people who are hearing, voice, speech, or language impaired communicate with others. There are a variety of devices that are able to assist people with communication needs, and depending on the specific need of the person, a particular device may be chosen to best suit their disability.

A person who is impaired has not necessarily lost all their ability to speak, hear, or communicate. They might have lost their hearing over the years, or maybe they had an illness that damaged their abilities in some way. An example of an assistive device might be hearing aids due to a person having difficulty hearing, but they may not be completely deaf. The hearing aids might be able to help them hear better than they would without wearing the device. A student might need additional assistive technology while in school to amplify the teacher’s voice. There are also other devices that help people communicate. Children or adults that have been diagnosed with autism, and are nonverbal, may use an assistive device to communicate with family members and caregivers.

These are just a few examples of the different types of assistive technology. There are many devices that help people to speak, communicate and hear if they are impaired in some way. While some people may be impaired for their whole lives, others might need to use assistive devices for a short period of time during recovery from an accident, illness, or operation. These devices and technologies are used to improve the quality of life and safety of individuals who are hearing, voice, speech, or language impaired.


Important Terminologies to Know

Before diving into more specific information, it is important to understand the terminology and the difference in certain types of devices. There are three main types of assistive devices to know about. They are Assistive listening devices (ALDs), Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices, and Alerting devices. Each of these technologies falls under the umbrella term assistive devices, but they all have their own purposes, which are dependent on what kind of impairment a person has. Not all ALDs are appropriate for all impairments. This is the same with AAC and alerting devices. Here is what you need to know about each of the types of devices.

Assistive listening devices (ALDs) – These devices help to improve a person’s hearing. They intensify the sounds whether the subject talking is far away, or if there is a lot of noise in the background that might make it difficult for someone to hear. Cochlear implants are one type of assistive listening devices, and so are hearing aids. The purpose of these devices is for the person to hear certain sounds more distinctly so that they can hear others. These devices would help those that are hearing impaired.

Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices – These devices allow people with speech and language impairments to express their wants and needs. A computer program that turns speech into text or text into speech would be considered an augmentative and alternative communication device. Another example would be a picture board that allows the person to click on a picture or word that expresses what they are trying to say. There are also talk and type devices that can be considered as AAC devices. These allow a person to type what they need to say, and the program will say it for them.

Alerting Devices – Alerting devices are important for a person’s safety. These devices might be attached to some kind of an alarm, telephone, or doorbell. They would assist in alerting the person that someone has arrived or is trying to call. They can also assist in the case of an emergency, when a person who is hearing impaired would not otherwise be able to hear or know that an alarm is going off. If you have ever been in a school or public building where a fire alarm is going off, you might have noticed that there is usually a flashing light on the alarms. This is something that is required by law, so that those with disabilities can be aware of what is happening.


Types of Assistive Listening Devices

Within each category of assistive devices, there are specific types of each. Assistive listening devices help a person to be able to hear better. There are devices such as personal amplifiers, infrared systems, FM systems, and hearing loop systems. These devices each have their own unique purpose and specialties. They are discussed below.

Hearing Loop Systems

These systems can also be called induction loop systems. Their main purpose is to energy emitted by electromagnetic waves that transmit sound. It has four parts. The four parts are a sound source, amplifier, thin wire within the area, the receiver, which is worn on the person’s ears, either inside or as a headset. The person who is hard of hearing will wear the headset and must be within the range of the loop. Usually, receivers can also be built into hearing aids or cochlear implants. The sound in the room will travel through the loop from the microphones or sound source.

When using a hearing loop system, the sound is very clear, and will cut out any background noise happening on the look. These systems may be found in public buildings, televisions or other listening sources. There are portable devices that those in need can carry around with them. The advantages of this kind of listening device is that the sound is clearer, and it gets rid of background noise. It makes it easier for a person to hear what is going on in a meeting, on the TV, or in other settings. These systems are complex and may experience disturbances, which can make it difficult to hear.

FM Systems

These devices will pick up sounds and transmit them through radio signals. The speaker usually has a microphone that is set up to transmit the sounds to a receiver worn by a person who is hearing impaired. It is common for this type of device to be used in a classroom with a student that might need the sounds amplified to hear better. An FM system might instead be used with a telecoil inside the hearing aid or cochlear implants that picks up sounds from a wire coil around their neck. This system converts the sounds into magnetic signals that are picked up by the telecoil. FM systems are often used in public places and can be used from up to 300 feet away, depending on the device. If there are multiple systems within an area, they might need to be on different channels to avoid interference.

The advantages of these types of systems are they make it easier for a person to follow what the speaker is saying, participate and hear in a one-on-one conversation, and it can also cut out distracting background noise. One thing to remember when using an FM system if you are the speaker is to turn it off when you are talking to someone else, or when it doesn’t need to be on. If you continue to speak when a student is trying to do their work, it could become distracting. It does take some time to get used to turning them on and off when needed.

Infrared Systems

These devices use infrared light that transmits sounds. The sound is converted to a light signal by the transmitter. It then sends it to the receiver, worn by the listener. The receiver then has to convert the signal back to sound. This system can be similar to the FM system because it can also involve a telecoil worn by the listener around their neck. The signal is then transferred to a magnetic signal that can help them to hear what the speaker is saying. A benefit to this type of system, and what makes it different than the FM system or loop system, is that it cannot pass the infrared signals through walls.

One place where this is particularly helpful is in courtrooms or anywhere that information is discussed and needs to stay confidential. These systems will also not interfere with other systems, so that is another advantage. One disadvantage is that they cannot be used where there are a lot of light sources that will interfere with the system, so using them outside or in well-lit rooms will not be helpful.

Personal Amplifiers

Personal amplifiers are devices that are about the size of a cell phone and help to amplify sounds as well as reduce any distracting background noise for the listener. They are most useful in places where the three previously mentioned devices are unavailable. They are helpful when using them while watching tv, driving or riding in a car, and being outside. They contain a microphone that can be directed at the speaker, so their voice can be increased in volume for the listener. The receiver that can pick up the sounds is usually in the form of a headset or earphones.


Face-to-face Augmentative and Alternative Communication

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices help people that have limited speech, or an inability to speak. One of the most common types of face-to-face AAC devices is a picture board that has a touchscreen. The person can pick pictures that help them to communicate their wants and needs. For someone who might be paralyzed or unable to move their limbs, they might choose to wear a pointer that can shine a tiny red dot on the picture they want to choose. Most of the boards can be customized based on the person’s age, knowledge, interests, and particular needs.

In addition, there are also keyboards and touchscreens that can display text to help a person communicate their needs. Devices can also generate speech based on words or pictures chosen by the person with communication difficulties. The software can be used that helps their words be translated into speech. The speech may not be their own voice, but usually, the type of voice used can be chosen. For example, they might choose whether the voice is male or female, has an accent, and could be a child or an adult. For this one, think about how you can pick the kind of voice Siri or your GPS has. It is similar to that. These devices allow for a person to communicate with those around them, and again, are chosen based on the abilities and needs of the person.


Telephone Communication Devices

It can be difficult for a person with hearing, speech, voice, or language impairments to make and receive telephone calls without assistance. One communication device that has been around for a long time is a TTY or TDD device. While TTY stands for teletype and TDD stands for Telecommunication Device for the Deaf, they are one in the same. Something important to know is that those in the deaf community prefer to use the term TTY instead of TDD. This type of device is not only for those that are deaf or hard of hearing, but can also be used for those with speech or language difficulties.

The TTY machine is a keyboard that can display conversations in text form. They can either be read on a screen or printed out by the user. The person with the impairment should have a machine, but if other recipients do not, they can use a nationwide system that is called the Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS). This is a toll-free service that can be accessed by dialing 711. An operator serves as the translator between these two people trying to communicate.

Since there is so much new technology now, these machines have become almost obsolete. Now people can use this communication device on their computers, mobile phones, and other devices. It has made communicating this way much easier. Text messaging is also a convenient way for those with impairments to communicate. Other minor devices are used for telecommunications. They are voice recognition software that can translate speech into sign language and captioned conversations.

All of these devices help those with voice, speech, language, and hearing impairments to have conversations with people through the telephone and other communication systems.


Alerting Devices and Safety

The safety of those with impairments is the number one important thing to consider when figuring out what types of assistive devices are needed. If a person is unable to hear or is hard of hearing, then they are going to need alerting devices that can indicate to them when an event is happening. Alerting devices are those devices and technology that let a person know there is an emergency, or something is happening. For example, alerts can be put in place to let a person know when someone is at their door.

These devices use signals such as light, vibrations, or higher pitched sounds to alert a person when something is going on. They can be found on doorbells, telephones, alarm clocks, and timers, as well as many other devices. In addition, they can also be used with security systems, fire alarms, smoke detectors and other safety devices to alert a person in the case of an emergency. There are even devices that can be used to alert parents who are hard of hearing that their baby is crying from another room. Usually, remote receivers can be placed in any room and all around the house, so that no matter where the person is, they will receive the alert.


Ongoing Research to Improve Assistive Devices

With technology changing constantly, it is important that continue to update assistive devices, so that those with voice, speech, hearing, and language impairments will continue to live a quality life. Ongoing research is always happening, and data is being collected to ensure that those with impairments are being supported properly. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) is a group that is constantly funding research on different aspects of assistive technology.

There are two different areas that are important to continue researching. They are in the area of improving devices for those with hearing loss and to improve devices that help non-speaking people. Researchers are constantly looking for new ways to use technology to help those with different degrees of hearing loss. There are teams that are designing new devices based on the research that has been conducted. As of now, they are developing a device that is portable and can be used for messaging with more than two people. In addition, there is also constant research and developments being made in devices used for communicating that rid of excess noise.

When it comes to research being conducted for those that are non-speaking, there are also some developments that are being made. Some research is helping to develop devices that have more natural sounding speech, so it is easier to understand them. A new area of research is in brain-computer interface, which means that devices are being developed that will help someone communicate by using neural signals from a person’s brain.


Types of Systems

Alerting & Notification Systems

Alerting and notification systems are those devices that can alert those that are deaf or hard of hearing of different events going on in the house. They can indicate a phone call that is coming in, important alarms that are going off, or even when a baby cries. These devices are not just made for those who are deaf and hard of hearing but can also be great signaling devices for those who can hear and would like to be alerted when something is happening. These devices contain easy-to-get signals in the form of loud noises, vibration, or bright flashing lights. There are a variety of different types of systems such as paging systems, motion systems, and signalers for smoke detectors or carbon monoxide alarms. These systems can help you, and your loved ones stay safe, whether or not you live with someone that is deaf or hard of hearing.

Hearing Aid Accessories

Taking good care of your hearing aids is important to ensure they are doing their job for you. If they are not working properly, you might miss important communication from loved ones. Make sure you have accessories that can help you take care of them, as well as enhance their use. Make sure to maintain them, so that they will last. They can be very expensive to fix or replace. Make sure to have backup batteries, so that you can replace them as soon as you notice the batteries are beginning to not work. You don’t want to be without your hearing aids. You can also get accessories that can help you clean them. Cleaning them on a regular basis is important to make sure they are working as needed. If they get dirty, it can affect how well you can hear. You can also get dryers and dehumidifiers, as well as protectors to keep them good as new.

Hearing Protection

Do you often partake in activities that involve a lot of noise? Mowing the lawn, weed whacking, using noisy equipment, and even attending car races can damage your hearing. Some jobs also might create a lot of noise that after a while can affect your ability to hear. Noise-induced hearing loss can cause you to become hard of hearing if you are often exposed to loud noises that are over 85 decibels. This is why it is important to use hearing protection if you engage in loud activities on a regular basis. There are a variety of different kinds of headphones that you can choose from to protect your hearing. You can choose from over the head earmuffs, noise canceling earmuffs, or even headphones that can be attached to a worker helmet. If you are in the construction or building industry, it is important that you have access to these types of hearing protection when on the job.

Large Area FM & Infrared Systems

These large area FM and Infrared systems can be used when in vast areas that usually involved a lot of people. These areas that are packed with people can sometimes be hard to use regular equipment in. Large area FMs and Infrared systems are helpful to have if you are in a theater, church, large hall, or courtrooms. If you are hard of hearing, you might want to consider using a large area system if you are frequently in other large public areas. Providing these services in your large public area will help you to comply with laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that require you to provide support for those with disabilities, like someone who is hard of hearing. Make sure you have all the accessories needed to go along with your large area FM or infrared system. Tours, which are portable systems, are also available to make hearing in large areas possible for those with hearing damage or loss.

Loop Systems & Receivers

Loop systems and receivers are useful devices for those that are hard of hearing when in a classroom, home, or other public areas. A loop system is an assistive listening device (ALD) that can help those who have difficulty hearing when in a room or public building. They are also used in education and for everyday living spaces where there is a person that is hard of hearing. The loop system can amplify sound when it is connected to a loop wire that sends sound signals to hearing aids. There are many different options for amplifiers and systems to choose from. A portable system is also available. You can either purchase the whole system together, or can purchase it in pieces as needed. This allows parts that are damaged to be replaced or updated without having the buy a whole new system.  Loop telecoil receivers can also be purchased separately.

Personal Amplifiers

Personal amplifiers are great devices that can be used to heighten sound for a person who is hard of hearing. These devices allow people to have a better one-on-one conversation in group settings. It can also help to reduce background noise, making hearing and communicating much easier for someone that is hard of hearing. Personal sound amplifiers (PSAPs) do not have to be a device that calls attention to you. They are discreet, so that a person can feel comfortable using them in a group setting. The devices are worn in the ear of the person needing to hear. There are also person FM systems that can be worn by individuals for the same reasons. They are great for being in a church, classroom, or other public spaces. A person who needs assistance with hearing would wear the device and point the microphone in the direction of the speaker to pick up the sound.

Speech Assistance

Speech assistant equipment can help anyone who has difficulty speaking or communicating with others. Perhaps they are nonverbal, are recovering from an accident or procedure, or are elderly and unable to communicate like they used to. These devices can help them to be sure their daily needs are met. They come in many different forms. These devices might involve a microphone to amplify a person’s speech that is weak, and can also come as a telephone device to assist with conversations. This kind of technology is also great for those that work in noisy environments and need assistance when it comes to speaking. Other devices can also help children in schools to slow down their speech, so those around them can understand what they are trying to say. These speech amplifiers and assistive technology can help anyone that has a difficult time communicating their needs and wants to other people.

TV Listening Amplifiers

Have you ever watched a TV program without the sound on? If you have, then you know how boring that can be. If you haven’t, you are lucky. Those that are hard of hearing and enjoy watching TV can benefit from using TV listening amplifiers. These devices can come in different forms, such as loop systems, headphone listeners, or speaker listeners. These useful devices will help to amplify the sound from the TV to a person’s hearing aids so that they will be able to hear the TV. Only their hearing aids will hear the amplified sound so that they won’t bother other viewers.  The wireless listening systems are easy to set up in the home, and can even be attached to your furniture, so you will always know where it is when you need it. Those that are hard of hearing can benefit from using TV listening amplifiers, so they can enjoy any TV program they want.

Garenne Bigby
Author: Garenne BigbyWebsite: http://garennebigby.com
Founder @dynomapper
Garenne Bigby is freelance Chicago developer and founder of DYNO Mapper with over 10 years experience in both agency and freelance roles in design, development, user experience, SEO, and information architecture.

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