Hearing augmentation for people with hearing impairments has been addressed in the Building Code of Australia (BCA) for quite some time but continues to be a largely misunderstood assistive technology to many building owners and building professionals.

Previous clinical research suggests that hearing loss affects approximately 22 per cent of the Australian population, and of course this proportion increases considerably with age, with 78 per cent of people aged over 80 affected.

While there is a significant array of assistive technologies to assist people with hearing loss in different environments and contexts, the BCA focuses almost exclusively on public address. It requires that a hearing augmentation system must be provided in certain situations where an inbuilt amplification system for public address is provided. The contexts these requirements apply to are in assembly buildings such as auditoriums, in conference rooms and meeting rooms, and in rooms for judicatory purposes. The requirements also extend to a ticketing area or reception which is screened from the public, given that screening can significantly affect the conduction of sound during communication.

The augmentation systems recognised in the BCA include hearing loops and transmitter/receiver type systems.

Hearing loops involve the installation of a coil of wire being placed around a room, sometimes under flooring or in ceiling spaces. A speaker using a microphone or PA system can then have the sound they produce conducted along the coil which produces an electro-magnetic field in the room. Hearing aid users with a hearing aid containing a ‘T switch’ can then receive the signal and amplify it according to their needs via their hearing aid. The signal gained should therefore also be a clear signal, free of reverberation, reflection and background noise.

People that do not have a ‘T switch’ enabled hearing aid but would also benefit from hearing augmentation can also be supplied by the venue with a wearable unit with earphones and volume control.

The transmitter/receiver type units generally use infrared or FM radio wave to transmit signals. Infrared signals require direct line of sight to operate effectively, so the positioning of transmitters is important, however the advantage of these units can be containing spillage of signals into adjoining rooms also requiring hearing augmentation. These types of systems require receivers to be maintained and managed by the venue. Unfortunately, misplaced, uncharged or un-serviced systems are all too regularly reported in the community.

The BCA also stipulates coverage and receiver quantities for systems based on the number of people anticipated to be accommodated in the relevant space, as well as tactile and Braille signage indicating the availability of a hearing augmentation system.

It is also unfortunate but true that little regard is given to emergency egress and assistive listening in our current codes and regulations. Of course providing a safe building to all occupants should be very high on the priority list of all buildings and assistive technologies are available to ensure this is better addressed.

Visible signals can be installed to work in conjunction with audible evacuation signals. Visual alarms with a temporal pattern can be used for this purpose and can be provided with signage to clarify the light’s intent.

In buildings with a residential component, such as hotels and guesthouses, vibration alerts can be incorporated which are activated by a smoke detector. This will often be a device that is placed under a pillow during sleeping hours. Beyond egress purposes, all sorts of alternative visual and tactile alerts can also be incorporated into buildings for applications as varied as door bells, vibrating alarm clocks, telephone alerts and baby monitors.

In the context of cinemas, captioning can provide a fail-safe access method for people with more significant hearing impairments. Previously, these technologies required additional equipment for their implementation and the captioning and description services were often simply not produced for a substantial number of cinema releases and major entertainment productions. This area has quickly evolved in recent years, and continues to evolve, making the uptake of such services by movie and entertainment providers far easier and cost effective.

The advent and progress of digital technologies now means that captions and audio descriptions can be provided with the same media for cinema releases and played with relatively standard equipment within cinemas.

Open captioning involves the display of captions on a cinema screen or on a screen adjacent to the proscenium of a cinema, theatre or stage. These are sometimes presented within the set of the production itself, allowing everyone within the theatre to view them. Many users prefer open captioning and sessions are sometimes scheduled at select cinemas and theatres offering this as opposed to closed captioning technologies alone (technologies that include an individual screen for captioning for each user).

Computer-Aided Real-Time Transcription (CART) is the instant production of spoken word into text on a screen. CART of course involves a skilled person to produce the text during a live oration or performance, however some planning in the design of a relevant building can make the accommodation of such services much easier.

A great deal more is available on the market to assist people with hearing impairments in their interaction with the built environment – too much to conduct a thorough review of the entire gamut. Specialist suppliers, representative associations and bodies, as well as many Accredited Access Consultants and relevant health professionals can however provide further assistance in navigating this area of assistive technology.