Andrew Thomas of Contacta Systems, and Chair of the International Hearing Loop Manufacturers Association (IHLMA), explains why assistive listening technology should be incorporated into every project
Hearing loss affects one in six of the UK population (almost 11 million people), but as a ‘hidden’ disability, knowledge in the FM sector of how to make spaces inclusive of their needs isn’t a given. This can mean that assistive listening technology is often omitted from plans or added as an afterthought when a scheme is close to completion.
Assistive listening technology amplifies the sound a person wants to hear above distracting background noise. This might be through the transmission of a magnetic signal to a person’s hearing aid, or sound amplified via radio or light waves to a receiver and pair of headphones. The technology can make all the difference to people with hearing loss, allowing a delegate to take an active part in a conference, a passenger to make it to their train, or an employee to leave the building safely in the event of a fire.
There are a number of reasons why it needs to be a central part of any tender or planning process. First, the Equality Act 2010 states that everyone should be treated equally and requires changes to be made ‘where needed, to improve services for disabled customers or potential customers’. ‘Potential customers’ is a key point – the environment needs to be accessible to those who might use it, not just existing customers, visitors or staff.
The Act specifically requires premises to make ‘reasonable’ adjustments for those with hearing loss and legally requires the provision of ‘auxiliary aids and services’, which may include assistive listening technology.
Facilities managers should also be aware of Part M of the building regulations, that state compliance is dependent on ‘a person with hearing loss receiving a signal that is amplified in both volume and signal to noise ratio’. It also states that provision must be made for a permanent system in larger spaces.
For customer-facing environments, such as retailers, leisure facilities, banking and transport providers, there is a clear business case for offering an inclusive service, both in terms of revenue and reputation.
Hearing loss is also an employee welfare issue, with those affected 2.5 times more likely to develop depression. Their performance may be affected because of an inability to hear well; plus, as mentioned above, unsupported hearing loss also represents a safety hazard – staff (and indeed, visitors) should be able to hear emergency alarms or safety announcements clearly.
Integrating assistive listening technology into a project should be done as early in the process as possible. Tenders should always allow for provision of a system, and where one already exists, it pays to factor a review of the technology into a refit schedule to make sure it’s fit for purpose, especially if substantial changes to the internal fittings are planned.
The most common option is a hearing or ‘induction’ loop, which involves laying copper cable around the perimeter of a room or in a series of loops in larger spaces. These are often laid beneath flooring so they are safely concealed. Adding loops in at a later stage isn’t impossible, but once an interior design has been completed, it’s far more disruptive and costly to add them retrospectively.
The building’s construction, and the composition and layout of a room, impact on the magnetic signal from the hearing loop, which is another reason why early integration is key. A steel subframe can create ‘metal loss’, and airconditioning units or other major power sources can cause interference.
There may also be physical barriers to users’ ability to get the best reception. The best reception of the loop signal may be in a particular spot or spots, and people need to be able to stand safely in those locations. Equally, signage that indicates where the listening spots are needs to be visible, and any potential obstructions to visibility need to be taken into account.
In addition, if plans haven’t included assistive listening technology and it needs to be incorporated at a later stage, while loops can be chased into brickwork or concealed under raised flooring, it may be inconvenient or costly to do so if interiors have been completed.