How to buy a Cell Phone when you have a Hearing Loss
Purchasing a cell when you have a hearing loss can be a daunting task. How do consumers know which cell phones work for their hearing needs? Why do some cell phones work for some people with a hearing loss but not others?
The Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) Fact Sheet on Hearing Aid Compatibility for Wireless Telephones provides and excellent overview of this topic:
ATIS Hearing Aid Compatibility Incubator and CTIA-The Wireless Association also developed a terrific brochure on Hearing Aid Compatibility for Wireless Telephones and Services.
Notwithstanding these brochures, consumers are still confused by the process. Our family found the choices overwhelming and the terminology baffling when we went to purchase a cell phone for our daughter who has a hearing loss. I was surprised since I am on the FCC's Consumer Advisory Committee and have access to people such as Brenda Battat who is now Executive Director of Hearing Loss Association of America and Linda Kozma-Spytek, Research Audiologist at Gallaudet University. During our family's quest, I developed the following decision tree.
1- What do the ratings mean?
Effective September 16, 2006, the FCC mandated that cell phone providers must offer at least two handset models that have a minimum M3/T3 rating. The M rating (M3 or 4) represents microphone interference potential to a hearing aid from the cell phone and the T rating (T3 or 4) represents the telecoil coupling capability of the cell phone. The higher the rating, the more likely the cell phone will be compatible with the hearing aid.
The minimum number of compliant handset models will soon be increasing. Service providers will have to meet an M3 rating for 50% of their models or 8 models per air interface, whichever is less, and a T3 rating for 1/3 of their models or 3 models per air interface, whichever is less.
An M4/T4 rating is available only for cell phones using CDMA technology and carried by Sprint and Verizon. M4/T4 ratings are not available in phones using GSM technology and carried by AT&T and T-Mobile. GSM can only achieve M3/T3 as its highest rating.
2- What is my hearing aid's Radio Frequency (RF) immunity level to the interference caused by cell phones?
Your audiologist can provide this information and it is important to know prior to purchasing a cell phone. Immunity refers to how well your hearing aid is protected from the interference that may be caused by cell phones.
The M ratings of the hearing aid and the cell phone need to be added together to have a sum of 5 or more or an M5 rating. The higher the sum of the two ratings, the more likely the cell phone will not interfere with your hearing aid when it is used on its main program (M). Therefore, a hearing aid needs to have a minimum immunity rating of at least an M2 since compatible cell phones will be rated either an M3 or an M4. Most current hearing aids have a rating of an M2 or better. The hearing aid immunity rating varies by company and product. A higher M rating is likely to perform better then one with a lower M rating. A higher phone rating is needed if the hearing aids have a lower M rating such as for older hearing aids.
Ratings for a hearing aid's telecoil immunity to interference are, currently, not offered. This rating will, hopefully, be available from the hearing aid industry in the near future. For now, this rating does not provide much insight.
3- What type of hearing aid do I have?
In-the-ear-canal (ITE) hearing aids may provide less interference than Behind-The-Ear (BTE) hearing aids. ITE hearing aids have a greater distance between the microphone on the hearing aid and the antenna on the cell phone that can create unnecessary interference for the user. Switching hearing aid styles may allow the user to purchase a cell phone with a lower M rating that may not have previously been an option.
My daughter was able to purchase a Blackberry with a lower M rating in a GSM transmission technology because she switched from a BTE to an ITE aid. She previously was unable to use this phone in the GSM transmission technology when she wore a BTE aid. Not all hearing aid styles are appropriate for all levels of hearing loss but it is worth investigating. Starkey produces a custom made ITE aid for people with a severe to profound hearing loss that is available only in Minneapolis.
Keep in mind that sometimes repositioning the cell phone over the ear or hearing aid can also help.
4- What type of cell phone coverage do I need?
It is important to determine whether domestic or international coverage is needed. There are four transmission technologies worldwide. In this country there are essentially two transmission technologies, CDMA and GSM with four tier one carriers that provide coverage across the U.S. Sprint and Verizon use the CDMA transmission technology and AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM. Different transmission technologies provide different coverage. In addition, the dominance of GSM and CDMA technologies differs internationally. Some phones can now operate using either CDMA or GSM technology.
For coverage information please visit our coverage map tool.
Cell phones in the CDMA transmission technology are rated either M3 or M4 but the cell phones in the GSM transmission technology are only rated an M3. Weighing GSM coverage versus an M4 rating is a personal decision.
5- What is the cell phone rated?
Research the cell phones prior to purchase. We keep an updated list of cell phones that are compatible.
Every cell phone store should provide documentation for cell phones rated as hearing aid compatible. The information should be on the placard by the cell phones and on the box. Sometimes the information on the placard is really tiny so look carefully.
6- Can I do an in-store cell phone test?
Only carrier stores are required to allow consumers to test the phones rated as hearing aid compatible prior to purchase. It is important to test the phone in a noisy as well as a quiet setting. Make sure there is room to adjust the volume control of the phone when testing the phone in a noisy setting.
7- Am I able to test the cell phone at home?
Every vendor has a different return policy so read it carefully and ask if there are any early termination fees. Save all the packaging. Stores will not take back merchandise without all the packaging and a receipt.
8- Is there too much magnetic noise in the background when the volume is adjusted?
The backlight, typically, turns on every time the volume control is adjusted. Manufacturers are not required to test the interference potential of the backlighting on the phone but it can create interference for consumers who use their telecoil for listening. Telecoil users should assess whether they can hear interference when the backlight is lit when trying a phone.
Technology is constantly changing so keep this in mind when selecting a contract length especially if you have a fluctuating or diminishing hearing loss. A carrier may not allow early termination of a contract if your hearing loss changes.
There is no perfect phone for every person with hearing loss. It is a matter of trial and error. Answering the above questions can assist in narrowing your options when buying a cell phone.
About Janice L. Schacter
Janice Schacter is a retired attorney whose 14-year old daughter is hard of hearing. She is the pro-bono Chair of the Hearing Access Program, which is a collaborative effort between the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Hearing Loss Association of America and The League for The Hard of Hearing. She started the program six-years ago to remove the artificial barriers that prevent people with hearing loss from enjoying everyday life. Her vision, drive and tenacity ensure that places such as amusement parks, corporations, cruise ships, modes of transportation, museums and theaters achieve their goal of accessibility for the entire hearing loss population. There are over 60 successes across the country and The Program is now expanding internationally.
Janice has testified before the Sub-Committee on National Parks in Congress, at New York City Council's budget hearings, the NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission and on City Hall's steps with Manhattan Borough President Scott J. Stringer. She has presented to organizations such as the American Association of Museums, The Children's Hearing Institute, Fighter Mom Friday, The NYC Department of Education and on multiple occasions to the Department of Interior/National Park Service. In addition, she worked with Build-A-Bear Workshop to develop a hearing aid that is now part of their product line.
New York State Governor David Paterson appointed her as a member of the 2008/2009 inaugural Interagency Council for Services to the Deaf, Deaf-Blind and Hard of Hearing. The U.S. Access Board appointed her to the 2007/2008 Passenger Vessel Emergency Alarms Committee. Chairman Kevin J. Martin has appointed her for two terms to the FCC's Consumer Advisory Committee.
She has been profiled, interviewed and quoted in major publications and on various news broadcasts. Schacter is the author of articles on advocacy and accessibility for people with hearing loss