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Mobile phone makers must tune in to hearing aids

Mobile phones are no longer luxury gadgets for the affluent few. But the mobile revolution also means that for some groups of disabled people new barriers have been erected.

There are over two million hearing aid users in the UK alone, with several millions more who would benefit from a hearing aid but do not have one, stigma being a major reason for this lack of uptake.

Electromagnetic interference between hearing aids and mobile phones has been a long standing problem. Mobile phones are, by definition, devices that send out radio signals.

When used in close proximity to a hearing aid, this can cause very obtrusive noise, not dissimilar to what you sometimes hear when a mobile phone is too close to your television or other audio-visual kit.

In the past, hands-free kits or listening accessories such as a neckloop have been used to mitigate these problems. But apart from being sometimes expensive and often not freely interchangeable between handsets, it also meant that unlike most of us, many hearing aid users can not hold their phone next to their ear when making or receiving a call.

Today, the technology exists to reduce interference between mobile phones and hearing aids and it is even possible to build an induction coil into the phone, so that it can be used directly with a hearing aid on the 'T' setting, rather than having to use a loop.

Indeed, for our cousins on the other side of the Atlantic, handsets like this have been available for quite a while. The reason? In the USA, the Federal Communications Commission obliges the industry to offer suitable handsets to hearing aid users and to provide clear labelling that tells people how much interference they can expect from a given handset.

And these rules really make a difference. Earlier this year, RNID tested the USA version of the Nokia 6085 hearing aid compatible phone with hearing aid users.

Even users who had previously been unable to use a mobile to make voice calls because of their hearing loss were able to use the phone successfully to make calls without additional accessories, a real breakthrough for them.

Unsurprisingly, most of the trialists involved in the RNID test showed great enthusiasm to purchase the phone. Disappointingly, however, it is not available on the UK market.

In fact, the story is even stranger: there is a European version of the 6085, but... it lacks the additional features present in the USA version that make it such a good product for hearing aid users.

The reason is simple: European law is letting deaf and hard of hearing people down. In contrast to the USA, the UK and Europe have not set stringent requirements for the provision of handsets suitable for people with hearing loss.

As a consequence, and despite a potential market of millions of European citizens, the industry is failing hearing aid wearers.

This is a clear example of the fact that despite the industry's rhetoric around corporate social responsibility, de-regulated markets must be backed by strong legal obligations addressing the needs of those consumers for whom mainstream and competitive markets do not deliver.

The RNID has been lobbying the manufacturers hard to try and persuade them to bring these devices to the UK too. Nokia in particular has been receptive to our arguments and I hope that the company will soon start offering the hearing aid compatible version of the 6085 to UK citizens too.

That would be a major step forward and is the kind of voluntary action we would like to see the whole industry commit to if they are to avoid regulatory intervention.

In the meantime, this story illustrates once again the importance of consumer protection, in particular for disabled people. There is still a lot to do before the access requirements of people with disabilities in mobile markets are met.



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