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June 16, 2003

Device sounds like winner

From: Denver Post, CO - Jun 16, 2003

Deaf inventor's idea adapts phones to hearing aids

By Tom McGhee , Denver Post Business Writer
Desperation drove Jo Waldron to invent a device that could change the way the hearing impaired perceive the spoken word.

Waldron, who has been deaf since birth, has developed technology that enables people who have hearing defects to hear more clearly on a telephone.

But telephones are just the beginning. The device - smaller than the head of a pushpin - can be used by anyone with a hearing aid to listen to CD and MP3 players, computers and other electronic devices.

Waldron, a nationally known disability rights champion and inventor, spent several years developing the technology. "A tremendous desire to hear" drove her quest, she said.

The invention is a doorway to a new world for Waldron, who cannot clearly hear the human voice without it. "I am the only person in the world who looks forward to my phone bill," she said.

But there are 34 million others in the United States and 500 million individuals worldwide who suffer hearing loss. Many of them may also benefit, she said.

Any device that increases access to audio players and other devices is part of a larger trend that is broadening the market for audio products, said Susan Kevorkian, an analyst with IDC.

Waldron, chief executive of Fort Collins-based Able Planet Inc., unveiled the technology last week in Denver.

It is now available in two products, a land-line telephone for $65.95 and a hands-free headset for wireless phones at $34.95.

The products can be ordered at

The microtechnology is installed in the telephone handset or in a headset. It interacts with something old - a telecoil that has been standard in many hearing aids since the 1950s.

With a traditional hearing-aid- compatible phone, the user flips a switch and the telecoil converts magnetic energy from the phone into sound.

The result is less than perfect, say some of those who have used the telecoil without the new technology.

A buzzing sound distorts the communication, explained Jon Fidrych, an 18-year-old senior at Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins.

Able Planet technology cuts the interference by using a direct audio link that is installed in the phone or headset, said Waldron, 52.

Users must still flip the switch that enables the T-coil, but the chip inside the phone neutralizes the interference.

Using the new phones, Fidrych no longer has to guess at what people actually say, he said.

For people whose hearing loss is as profound as Waldron's, a telecoil and standard telephone are useless, Waldron said.

Once installed, the micro-technology is transparent and has no effect on the sound that those without hearing aids hear.

People with hearing loss have used other products aimed at improving telephone reception with varying degrees of success, said Brenda Battat, public policy director for Self Help for Hard of Hearing People in Bethesda, Md.

Traditional technologies try to improve speech understanding by using hearing-aid-compatible headsets, volume controls and accessories.

Many hearing-impaired individuals use existing telephones with their T-coil-equipped hearing aids successfully, while others can remove the hearing aid and get good reception, Battat said.

But many hearing-impaired people have expressed frustration with existing technology. "There is no way to predict whether the telephone and hearing aid will work together. There is no basic standard," Battat said.

Self Help advocates technology that is built into phones, but has not tried out Able Planet's products.

Accessories made by companies such as Nokia tend to be fragile, and people prefer not to use attachments, she said.

In a test conducted at Colorado State University, people using Able Planet phones were able to understand 81.6 percent of words, compared with 52.6 percent when they used traditional hearing-aid-compatible phones, Waldron said.

Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels Corp. has installed 300 phones equipped with Able Planet technology at three hotels in Colorado: Hyatt Regency Denver, Hyatt Regency Tech Center and Park Hyatt Beaver Creek.

San Jose, Calif.-based Teledex, which supplies phones to the hospitality industry, is manufacturing the phones for Hyatt. The hotel giant plans to replace thousands of phones throughout its chain over the next 10 years with the new products.

Able Planet plans to work with all sorts of companies in rolling out the new technology, Waldron said. "I always look to the future."

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