Friday, April 22, 2011

Finding a hearing-aid compatible (T3 telecoil) mobile phone in Europe

(Det går att läsa den här bloggposten på smått trasig automat-översatt svenska)

The last couple of days, I've made my way through the jungle of options which is finding a cell phone setup which will work for my severely hearing disabled mother. It was strange and confusing, but a task I enjoyed doing, for with such a nerd son, my mother deserves only the best solution giving best value for money. I intend to describe my findings here, for the benefit of other hearing disabled and to criticize some who are not doing their job.

The final result first

We opted for getting my mother a cheap-o robust and very nice Nokia 2720. It has larger than average buttons, a decent screen, the option of at least GPRS and a basic camera, and the clamshell model my mother specifically requested. That way, there is no fidgety button to find when someone is calling - it displays the caller clearly on the external screen and you just open to pick up the call.

More importantly, Nokia is the only manufacturer we could find who display their US mandated M/T-ratings in a list online, and the 2720 is a fairly recent model which has the essential T-coil built in. This is at least supposed to enable her to switch the hearing aid to T-coil mode, sending the sound wirelessly between phone and hearing aid. For severely hearing disabled this is key, because the hearing aid would otherwise pick up too much noise and conversations would be difficult or impossible. Here is also the first point of criticism, AT&T provide lists for the american model phones they provide with M/T-rating, but similar compilations could not be found for European models either from manufacturers (except Nokia), operators or disability support groups. Other brands probably also have rated models, but we simply could not find them. It seems owning a decent cell phone is too much to ask for from a hearing disabled person.

The options I had to understand

When mom first approached me for advice, she brought print-outs of the pretty new Doro phone selling very well here in Sweden. It's specially designed for the elderly, only has the basic functions and easily manageable large buttons. It advertises it's built-in T-coil to connect with the hearing aid so that was all looking like a nice option. However, it is priced like a mid-range multimedia phone, I have seen it reviewed as "plasticy" and to have mediocre battery time. Not something you want to pay that kind of money for, especially since my mom is not that vision impaired and maybe the T-coil wouldn't even be the final most convenient solution. I soon reviewed it as "Mom, that would be like getting you ready for the care home too early". There was some betting in the family whether she could be happy with another phone, and I'm satisfied to say that she pretty much loves the Nokia, so that's about the Doro. I'm sure it's great for the really elderly, but Nokia are experienced in making great low-range phones, so unless you badly need precisely those Doro features, Nokia gives you a better phone at less than half the price. Finally, like even basic standard phones nowadays, it has a camera which enables mom to shoot the occasional amusing picture with.

The bluetooth versus telecoil complexity

Mom has recently got a very nice and advanced Widex Inteo Power IN-19 hearing aid, one of the first capable of frequency conversion. Instead of amplifying more in the frequencies where she is pretty much deaf, it converts them down to lower frequencies which she can hear. It's a little bit like DanKam for the color blind, a neat piece of signal processing circumventing the disability.

Regardless how good the hearing aid is at getting sound to the brain of a hearing disabled, when it comes to any type of electronic systems (TV, the phone, speaker systems in seminars, church etc.) it is a lot more convenient to transfer the sound directly to the hearing aid instead of picking it up through the microphone. Now the issue I faced was precisely how to get the sound between phone and the hearing aid, there were three options.
  • Bluetooth between phone and hearing aid - pretty much all phones (and many other electronic devices, though not TVs) nowadays have bluetooth and support connecting to sound input- or output profile devices (microphone and headphones). However, only few hearing aid models have caught up with this and instead feature the older telecoil. Replacing a hearing aid is an expensive and cumbersome option, so we skipped that right away. Also the bluetooth hearing aid wouldn't have the microphone, so wouldn't necessarily give the nifty option to leave the phone in the purse and pick up with the press of a button and speak into a headset.

  • Telecoil in the phone - as mentioned above, many phones probably have the T3/T4 telecoil rating (M3/M4 is regarding how little noise the phone would incur in the hearing aid), but it is not simple to find and is rarely advertised in the regular specifications. Nokia excel by providing a list of their models which feature a telecoil. This is the setup we opted for at least initially and even though the Nokia 2720 is said to have a weaker telecoil than earlier models, it works satisfactory for mom.

  • Bluetooth telecoil loops and headsets - bluetooth has become a convenient and mature technology to connect in particular a mobile phone to a headset (it can also for example be used to transfer files between the phone and a laptop). Not only does it give a wireless audio connection to the phone which you can leave in your purse (hey, women usually have less pockets than men) or a few meters away, usually they can also provide a button to pick up and or make calls through voice control as well as signal and vibrator when someone is calling. It turned out even a regular cheap "jawbone" bluetooth headset on the ear in place of the hearing aid provided a great benefit when tried by mom, as you can crank up the volume straight into the ear it even worked without the hearing aid.

    However, hearing disabled have their own solutions too, usually a telecoil loop hung around the neck with a pendant containing the bluetooth device, microphone, vibrator and the button (there also is the wired telecoil "hook" hung by the hearing aid, but on the whole it seems a silly option except it can get quite cheap). TecEar provide a good list of models you can buy in the US, but just to add to the consumer confusion, each supplier in Sweden sell only one or a few models (Hörselskadades riksförbund, Bo Edin AB, Headsetshoppen, Svensk hörsel leverantörernas förening och Lisas CI-blogg), according to their manufacturer contracts and quality preference. We have understood that the Joy Abe BH01 model is good enough, it is quite stylish and one of the best priced around and as the need arise, we may opt for this to supplement the Nokia 2720 built-in telecoil, as indeed it adds the wireless convenience as well. We have discussed simplicity a lot, this option would enable mom to leave her phone in the purse, feel the vibration from the pendant and pick up by switching her hearing aid to T-coil mode and press the button on the pendant. Compare this to switching the hearing aid mode, finding the phone in the purse, and fiddling with it some to pick up, or removing the hearing aid (which needs to be turned off as not to feedback shriek) and replacing it with a bluetooth headset, the telecoil loop is a very nifty option. Bear in mind that as niche devices, these things cost 100-200 EUR, which plus a basic phone still is a very appealing option competing with the Doro phone niched for the elderly.

Finally, I hope you have enjoyed and gotten use of this detailed description, I'm very happy to receive critique on it, and let's hope manufacturers and suppliers can improve and become clearer in their communication also to the disabled! A particular thanks to Lisas CI-blogg and Bo Edin AB for friendly and informative comments!

Update: I've found another list of M/T rated phones, but still very little communication from the manufacturers themselves. Also, we have realized that mom would very much want either of the bluetooth telecoils, but to complement it, a 3.5mm plug simple telecoil would also come in handy (not sure which would be the cheapest option though), for those times when you want to hear something off the computer, an iPod or someone else's equipment without doing the bluetooth pairing. A wired loop with 3.5mm plug would be ok, compared to one with a specific contact which you would have to replace when you change cell phones.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to publish your findings! It's great that people share the informatiion they spend ages finding. I'm a hearing aid user but am coping (just) with my ericcson, but I'm looking for a mobile for my father who is profoundly deaf. It could well be that there is no phone that would be adequate for him but I will certainly look into the M/T lists. Thank you once again.