The Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) is home to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), the first and largest specialty college of its kind. Since first accepting deaf and hard of hearing students in 1968, NTID continues to provide outstanding technical and professional education programs, while supporting deaf and hard of hearing students with a wide variety of services, from dispensing hearing devices and providing interpreters to assigning note-takers and installing group audio systems.
In 1999 NTID identified a gap in access to auditory information for hard of hearing students campus-wide. While assistive listening systems were available in many of the venues, the students and faculty were not aware of their options. In addition, the equipment was prone to breakdown, and was not always compatible with the students’ hearing devices; and the variety of systems around campus only added to the confusion.
Chas Johnstone, technology coordinator in the Technology Support Services Department said, “Some venues had FM systems, others had infrared systems. There were also technical problems like interference. For some students, changing frequencies on their devices required swapping out frequency cubes. It really was just a logistical nightmare.”
To add to the complexity of serving all hearing abilities, cochlear implants* were becoming more popular among students. Lawrence C. Scott, chair of the Communications Studies and Services Department explained that “the number of students with cochlear implants has skyrocketed.”
“The challenge then,” Scott explained, “was to provide ample and equal access to classes, seminars, productions and events to the deaf, hard of hearing, hearing and cochlear implant students and visitors.”
Both Johnstone and Scott agreed that the kind of technology needed to handle all these variations simply did not exist in 1999. After deciding to replace the old bulky FM systems with the new Phonak MicroLink system, the only challenge that remained was finding an FM transmitter compatible with both MicroLink’s narrow-band receivers and the many other brands the college dispenses.
Thanks to a recent partnership between Phonak and Listen Technologies Corporation – leading manufacturers of hearing devices and wireless audio technology respectively – a best-of-breeds technology solution was born that fit the bill perfectly. It includes the Listen LT-800-216 MHz FM stationary transmitter that can be programmed to work on wide-band or narrow-band frequencies.
Now on the RIT campus, 26 venues are outfitted with this new solution. Each system includes two Listen LT-800 FM Transmitters which are connected to the venue’s sound systems. One transmitter is set to a wide-band frequency, and the other transmitter is set to a narrowband frequency, which accommodates hearing devices such as the Phonak MicroLink Receivers.
Because these specialized transmitters have a broadcast range of 3000 feet, the solution is suitable for larger venues, such as the 440-seat Panara Theatre and the 8,200-seat Gordon Field House. NTID selected Listen’s LR-400 Display FM Receiver as the standard assistive listening receiver around campus for its durability, ease of use, and high sound quality.
What makes this solution as elegant as it is effective is how seamlessly the whole system works. As students with MicroLink receivers (attached to hearing aids) “float” within a couple of feet of MicroLink WallPilot wall plates, the users’ frequencies are automatically synchronized with that of the room’s group system. In addition, the overall “smart” presentation system enables instructors to operate the system without a technician on site. They control the volume for convenience.
“Initially logistics were challenging because transmitters would be in close proximity of each other. We were very concerned about interference, like we had experienced with our older systems,” Johnstone said. “With this system though, there was no interference and no problems.”
Scott called it a “zero-maintenance solution” and said, “the cross-platform compatibility really makes all the difference in the usability of the system. There is compatibility with anyone who walks in the door.”
Yes, that includes even those with perfect hearing abilities. Because NTID is fertile ground for training and developing with the use of American Sign Language, the college will host a number of events – usually in a theater – with ASL as the floor language.
Scott explained that in an ASL conference, silence is appropriate. “To maintain the purity of the language, we issue our Listen LR-400 assistive listening receivers to the hearing,” he said. “It’s like assistive listening in reverse.”
Voice interpreters are equipped with a specialized soundproof mask, and speak the interpretation into a microphone. The FM system’s transmitters (installed in the venue) broadcast the interpretation into the theater, where the personal receivers pick up the digital signal. Listeners hear the interpretation through the attached headphones.
Whether the technology is used forwards or backwards, NTID is enhancing the experience of their community with their own creative innovation.
*Cochlear implants, which are designed for the deaf and severely hard of hearing, bypass damaged parts of the ear and directly stimulate the auditory nerve so the brain can “hear” sound. While it does not restore normal hearing, implants enable people to hear and recognize a variety of sounds in their environment, such as warning signals and speech. (For a quick science lesson on cochlear implants, visit www.nidcd.nih.gov.)