IM this article to a friend!

June 2, 2004

Firm listens to customers, designs hearing devices

From: Chicago Sun Times, IL - Jun 2, 2004

BY HOWARD WOLINSKY Business Reporter

Amplified phones and other devices to help the hearing impaired traditionally have had all the style and functionality of consumer products designed in the Soviet Union.

"They were clunky and drab, typically an off white. They didn't have the features of a modern phone like you'd buy at Wal-Mart," said Michele Ahlman, 36, vice president of marketing and operations of Burr Ridge-based HITEC Group, a family-run distributor of assistive hearing devices.

Richard Uzuanis, executive vice president of HITEC, said his company's customers were asking for products not available to the hearing impaired, adding that manufacturers gave no indication that they planned to offer them. So after 22 years in the distribution business, HITEC has designed and manufactured in China its own line of a half dozen assistive products that hit the market this year under the ClearSounds Communications name.

Uzuanis, 60, is a former executive with Bell Atlantic. His wife, Madelaine Uzuanis, 61, a former school teacher, founded HITEC in 1982 and still serves as president. Ahlman is the Uzuanises' daughter.

Ahlman said the ClearSounds line emphasizes style, offering sleek, dark-colored devices that look like mass-market telephones with functions not available in other assistive devices, such as Caller ID on a phone and an infrared hook-up on a hand-held amplifier that enables users to plug in headsets and listen to movies and theater performances.

She said the ClearSounds line aims to help people who have resisted wearing hearing aids as well as helping those who wear hearing aids.

The line includes:

*The $169 ClearSounds Amplified Freedom Phone has maximum amplification, caller ID on a large LCD, a flashing ring signaler using a bright strobe light, and a large, easy-to-read keypad. Ahlman said people can "accessorize" with this phone, by plugging in a $169 wireless Bluetooth headset for hands-free use, or plugging in a telephone coil so the phone signal can be heard directly on a hearing aid. There also is a $30 optional vibrating device that can be used to shake a bed or a sofa cushion when a call comes in.

*The $60 ClearSounds Amplified Liberty Trimline Phone is aimed at people with mild to moderate hearing loss. It has a visual ring indicator and large keys. The handset enjoys a substantial price advantage over competitors' products priced at $100 to $160. "This phone has the same amplification as the more expensive products, but it's not hideous [looking]," she said.

*The $250 ClearSounds Sound Wizard II Complete Communication System is in essence a hand-held hearing aid. Ahlman said many people have a psychological reluctance to wearing hearing aids or simply can't afford hearing aids, which go for $800 to $5,000 each. She said the Wizard has a directional microphone that enables the user to tune in a speaker and an omnidirectional microphone for use in meetings or in classrooms. She said the device has a built-in infrared receiver that enables users to "walk into a theater and hear a movie." She also noted that some new TV sets broadcast infrared sound signals. The Wizard also has a dual headset jacks that make it possible for two hearing-impaired people to listen to TV together or to take a phone call together.

*The $50 ClearSounds Amplified Phone Ring Signaler can make an existing phone hearing-impaired friendly with a very loud ring tone or a bright strobe linked to the ring tone. Ahlman said this product is unusual because it provides multiple options to signal a ring. An optional vibrating device can be added.

*The $35 ClearSounds Portable Telephone Amplifier can amplify the sound on any existing phone, including digital phones commonly found in offices. The user can carry the device with him and use it wherever he goes.

Uzuanis expects the new product line to help grow HITEC's revenues by 10 percent to 20 percent this year. Last year, the company, which employs 18, rang up more than $3 million in sales.

HITEC sells its products online, in its Burr Ridge showroom and through audiologists. The company for the past 11 years has been an exclusive special-needs center for the hearing impaired in Illinois and 12 other states for SBC and its predecessors. HITEC is the special-needs provider for T-Mobile and Sony Ericsson.

HITEC also is working on a deal with the Chicago Public Schools to deploy a digital text system to make all schools and administrative offices accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing. Uzuanis said the system helps these people navigate voice mail systems that previously have been a barrier for the deaf.

Ahlman said the goal with the ClearSounds line and other products is to help the hearing impaired to fully participate in life.

"Hearing loss is an epidemic in this country. What it boils down to for us is helping them stay connected. These products fill in the gaps for our customers," she said.

Copyright 2004, Digital Chicago Inc.