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New Hearing Loop In Arizona Legislature To Help Members, Visitors Who Are Hard Of Hearing

house chamber desks turned over
(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
The desks in the House chamber were turned over this week so crews could install devices as part of the hearing-loop installation.

Losing your hearing is not like just turning down the volume. There are certain sounds that actually disappear. Starkey Hearing Technologies has a hearing-loss simulator that demonstrates this.

Hearing devices like aids and cochlear implants can help, but there’s a limit to what they can do depending on the space. A technology called a hearing loop can transmit sound directly into a hearing device, and it’s being installed at the state Legislature.

If you go to the Arizona House of Representatives building right now, you’ll be greeted by a sign that says “Pardon our dust,” as well as dust from all the drilling.

We’ll get to the breakdown of exactly how a hearing loop works later. First let’s talk about the existing tech in the legislature.

“The technology — and that’s a kind description of what was in both the House and Senate chambers — dates back to the '70s,” said Mike Braun, executive director of the Arizona Legislative Council.

“Quite frankly there was nothing beyond antiquated loudspeakers that were either broken or had long since served their useful purpose,” he said.

During a meeting on the House floor, members use microphones at their desks to amplify sound. If you listen to an archived session, it sounds pretty clear. That’s because it’s the feed from Arizona Capitol Television, which is like Arizona C-SPAN.

But if you’re there in person, the old speakers Braun mentioned and the bad acoustics in the towering chambers make the sound pretty muddled.

“Sometimes I cannot hear at all what my colleagues or the presiding officers are saying. So that’s pretty limiting,” said Representative Lela Alston, from District 24.

Alston is hard of hearing. And for six years in the House, she’s had trouble making out what’s being said, even with a hearing aid.

“It has limited my participation in the debate because I cannot hear what’s going on,” she said.

Which means she has a hard time doing her job. This is where the hearing loops come in.

“Think of a speaker cable, if you have a home stereo system or a hi-fi. It kind of looks like that,” said John Gibson, a technologist with Engineering And Recording.

Yes, their acronym is EAR. They’re installing hearing loops all over the Legislature, at a price of about $170,000.

“In the hearing rooms, in the Senate chambers, and the House chambers, in the galleries,” Gibson said.

This week in the hearing rooms, ceiling tiles were missing as workers installed wiring up above. The wire loops around the perimeter of the room, hence, hearing loop. The cavernous chambers were a little trickier, so they’re going to just put them in the desks where members sit. It looked a little funny because all the desks were flipped onto their backs, drawers up.

“So the systems can be deployed to whichever 20 desks,” Gibson explained to Alston in the House chamber.

“I’m number one on the list,” Alston laughed.

So, how does it actually work?

“We take the audio from the mixers, and take the audio output of that and feed it into a special amplifier,” Gibson said. “That amplifier then generates a signal into the loop, which then radiates wirelessly that signal.”

In layman’s terms, it’s kind of like making a Bluetooth phone call to the microphone. So instead of muffled, echoing sound, they hear it like the feed from the Capitol TV station. And if a visitor is hard of hearing but doesn’t use a device, the Legislature will have some temporary aids they can use.

These systems are in some other high-profile locations like the U.S. House of Representatives, plus places of worship, theaters and airports, but on a small scale. Alston said she still hasn’t experienced it herself.

“I’ve not yet been in a building that was wired, if you will, for the new technology,” she said. “I’m just really excited about using the technology for the first time, and curious about how that’s going to change what I hear and how I can respond to my colleagues.”

We’ll see how that goes the second Monday of January, when the legislative session starts.

And those old speakers from the '70s are getting replaced, too, so everyone can hear a little better and the debates on the floor go smoothly — at least, in terms of sound.

Annika Cline was a producer for KJZZ's The Show from 2014 to 2019.