OTOjOY LoopBuds allow anyone with a smartphone to stream the audio signal from a hearing loop assistive listening system directly to their own devices. Effectively, they can hear the sound from the sound system directly in their own earphones and customize their volume and equalizer settings.
Approximately 20 percent of the U.S. adult population have some form of hearing loss. Many churches today primarily cater to an aging demographic and for people over the age of 60, the prevalence of hearing loss is almost as high as 60 percent. These individuals struggle to understand speech and enjoy music, particularly in the presence of surrounding noises and in spaces with echo and reverberation. In these situations, many of them depend on being able to read the presenter's lips, which is not a viable option at large distances or when a person wears a full beard. Unfortunately, many churches combine several of these factors, making worship one of the most challenging listening environments for anyone, whether or not they're affected by hearing loss.
With an assistive listening system, the sound from the church's PA system gets sent wirelessly to the parishioner, removing background noise, echo, and reverberation. However, to receive the audio signal, the person generally needs to borrow a headset receiver from the church. These receivers need to be maintained, batteries need to be charged, and ushers are needed to hand out the devices. Many places require a photo ID deposit to make sure the devices are returned at the end of a service. Unfortunately, there is still a significant stigma associated with hearing loss and many people don’t want to stand out wearing bulky headphones. Adding another challenge to the equation, headphones or earphones generally do not work for people with hearing aids or cochlear implants, as it would require them to remove their hearing devices to be able to use the assistive listening device. For these situations, neck loops are (supposed to be) provided. A neck loop is essentially a cable that hangs around the parishioner’s neck and is plugged into the bodypack receiver. It creates a magnetic field containing the audio signal, which can then be picked up by a t-coil or telecoil, a small component that is embedded in 80 percent of all hearing aids in the market today. That way, the personal calibration to the user's individual pattern of hearing loss is used and creates clarity rather than just louder sound, which may still appear muffled or unclear to the listener.
A hearing loop system, in contrast, does not require any such equipment. Anyone with a t-coil enabled hearing aid or cochlear implant can directly receive the sound from a hearing loop at the push of a button. That way, they don't need to stand out from the crowd and can just walk into the sanctuary, sit down in the pew, press a button on their hearing device, and they're tapped right into the sound system. Hearing loops are simple to use, universal worldwide, compatible with the vast majority of hearing aids, do not put any additional drain on the hearing aid battery, and are scalable to any number of users without the need for additional equipment. In the long term, hearing loops provide the most cost-effective assistive listening technology available when calculating the cost per user. Since most people that need this accommodation will eventually use their own hearing device, headset receivers will get used less frequently, reducing the cost for maintenance and batteries.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires assistive listening systems to be provided in public meeting spaces. Although religious organizations are exempt from this law, any facility that is rented out to or used by non-religious organizations still needs to comply. In California, churches fall under the California Building Code, which has adopted almost identical language to the ADA, thus mandating churches to provide assistive listening systems. Independent of a legal requirement, many places of worship consider inclusion as one of their most important spiritual practices and want to make sure their congregants can have the best possible experience during services. A hearing loop assistive listening system provides equal, cognitive access for anyone with a hearing loss disability.
Unfortunately, many people with hearing loss cannot afford hearing aids, as they're typically sold for $3,000 to $6,000 per pair. The stigma associated with wearing a hearing aid may further deter them from seeking help. If these individuals would want to make use of a hearing loop, they would still have to borrow a headset receiver from the church, which again may not be their preferred option. This is where OTOjOY LoopBuds come into play. Rather than borrowing a headset receiver, parishioners can use their own pair of LoopBuds in combination with their smartphone to pick up the sound from a hearing loop. All that's required is to download and open the LoopBuds app and plug the earphones into the phone. The user can adjust their own volume level, balance between left and right ear, and adjust their equalizer setting for each ear individually.
OTOjOY LoopBuds are priced at $75, almost two orders of mangitude cheaper than many hearing aids, and are available in both black and white. Since no two ears are alike, the earphones are compatible with custom ear-tips, which can be purchased from any audiologist or hearing aid dispenser for approximately $100 per pair.
OTOjOY is currently working on a new feature to provide real-time, automated captions to LoopBuds users. This feature will allow parishioners to read the sermon on their smartphones or tablets and provide accessibility even for people with profound hearing loss or complete deafness, something that currently no assistive listening system is capable of. This captioning feature is expected to be available in early 2018.
More information on OTOjOY LoopBuds can be found at: http://www.loopbuds.com
More information about hearing loops, other assistive listening technology, and hearing loss prevalence can be found at: http://www.hearingloss.org/sites/default/files/docs/HearingLoops-Pref_AssistiveTech.pdf