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You and the Smartphone Revolution

By Lindsay Hutton

You and the Smartphone Revolution

Weighty flip-phones begone! In the past five years, smartphones have emerged from a device seen mostly in the busy hands of business people to the top-selling family of cell phone in Canada, accounting for almost half of the units sold in the Canadian market. Upgrades in accessibility, ease of use, and ability to personalize its use via applications (“apps”) make fast and furious leaps from year to year, offering an excellent resource for people with hearing loss to stay in touch.

Smartphones have long been a favourite for people with hearing loss. “I tried to get one as soon as I could,” says Sarah, a university student in Guelph, Ontario. Born with severe hearing loss and assisted with hearing aids (HA’s), Sarah often had difficulty using a standard phone, found TTY too “fussy” and had always relied heavily on email for communication. “But getting a smartphone was great – I could easily text and use email anywhere. And the newer phones are getting better and better.”

Choosing the Right Phone for You

If you choose to use a smartphone for voice communication, it’s crucial to know what types of handsets suit your hearing devices. The past two years saw most handset manufacturers up their accessibility game, but some are better than others for different kinds of hearing technologies. Put simply, some handsets won’t work with your HA/CI while some can work perfectly. Still others require accessories to work best.

For example, many users note that some brands, most notably the iPhone, doesn’t offer as many accessibility options as RIM (Blackberry) (text-to-voice/voice-to-text capabilities, closed captioning) On the other hand, most Blackberrys work well with a multitude of makes and models of HA’s and CI’s, whereas many people lusting after the sleeker iPhone often find it less compatible. In addition, several Android LG phones are becoming fast favourites.

Whatever the brand, one of the biggest headaches with some handsets is they may cause feedback in your HA/CI and other accessories. There is a standard rating system, but it’s best to check with your hearing aid manufacturer and your audiologist first to check compatibility. (Here are the compatibility ratings for Telus and Bell handsets to give you an idea).

Obviously, another important factor is cost. Presently, all wireless providers in Canada offer monthly plans and packages specifically designed for people with accessibility requirements. As such, do your research, don’t be afraid to shop around and be sure to ask your parents for help to make the best choice.

New Directions

As Bluetooth technology is becoming the gold standard in hearing aid and other hearing assistive devices (often with the use of a streamer), smartphone and HA/CI enjoy a boost in connectivity via a mini-network, offering a clearer “listening” experience. In addition, Bluetooth technology will render obsolete around-the-neck “loop sets” and other pesky accessories. However, this technology doesn’t come cheap – it may be a few years until affordable alternatives are available.

For those who choose to live outside of HA/CI connectivity to voice communication and want a real-time boost outside of texting and email, researchers at the University of Washington are nearly ready to release MobileASL. Offering a clear, low-bandwidth video chat designed to capture the subtleties of sign language, MobileASL also works without being on WiFi network (a requirement for iPhone’s FaceTime, for example), and won’t break the bank in data usage. Check out a video on this upstart technology here.

Whatever your choice, remember the three key points of good device shopping: value for money, product quality and accessibility. Make an appointment with your audiologist and make sure you’re making the best choice for you.