Hey, have you heard about hearing loops?

By Claire Byrne

In 2018, I had never heard of a hearing loop. It was my first year at University, and I had uprooted my small town, semi-rural life on the outskirts of Sydney, and moved into the big smoke. The city was new and exciting, I met people from all walks of life. I was suddenly surrounded by diversity, and everyone was different – I loved it. Looking back, it was a year filled with what I now consider to be a series of life-changing moments.

One of these moments happened in the second semester of my first year of study. I had noticed one of my tutors was using a small microphone during one of our breakout sessions. I couldn’t make sense of it at the time. The class couldn’t have been any more than 25 students, and I could hear everything just fine. Week after week, this tutor continued to use the tiny microphone. To me, the only thing amplified was her obstructed airways as she taught us theoretical frameworks for understanding society.

One day, I asked a new friend if she was able to make sense of the tiny microphone. Much to my embarrassment, she explained with great conviction how the microphone was part of a hearing loop on campus which captured sound and transmitted signals directly to hearing aids. It meant people with hearing loss could listen to the tutor without disrupting background chatter and noise. No one had said they were hard of hearing in that class, but that was just it – they didn’t need to. By the tutor using the loop regardless of who was in the room, everyone could participate.

I was embarrassed because I had never heard of hearing loops, despite working in the disability sector at the time. I was all too familiar with flawed design principles preventing people from accessing the world. I knew when I was working to steer clear of Redfern station as it didn’t have accessible lifts and consciously avoided fixed seating at all costs.

I had witnessed exclusive design firsthand, but I had little awareness of design being used to recognise and rectify points of exclusion. A space that actually reflected the people that use it – amazing.

Thinking about it now, Inclusive Design makes perfect sense. Why wouldn’t you design a classroom for all, not just those with good hearing? In Australia, 14 % of the population have some sort of hearing loss. So, statistically speaking, three people in the classroom during my second semester and every following semester, could have problems hearing the tutor. With the addition of a hearing loop, regardless of whether people used a hearing aid or not, the space enabled everyone to participate equally and independently.

In 2018, I couldn’t articulate what Inclusive Design was, but I knew it made sense.

And it still makes sense. Maybe we all need a new friend to explain it to us. It is an opportunity to bring us all together. Everyone in the same room, regardless of ability, gender, language and culture. And so maybe next time you see a tiny microphone being used, ask a friend, ‘hey, have you heard about hearing loops?’.