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Cross-university team researches options for those with hearing loss

School of Communication Doctor of Audiology student Sean Flowers works with Tony Adcock, Voice Communications Engineer from NUIT Telecommunications and Network Services to select the best phone technology for those with hearing loss in the Northwestern University community.

Ken Cluskey, a former program manager at the Northwestern University School of Continuing Studies, has hearing loss. If you’d called him at his office, though, you’d have never known it. This has much to do with Cluskey himself, of course: his skills as a conversationalist, his active listening strategies. But he also had something called a caption phone at his disposal, which, like captioned television, provided him with a transcript of everything a caller says.

When Cluskey first got to Northwestern, however, he was not so well appointed.

“I needed a neck loop,” he said. The loop is an assistive device for hearing-aid users who talk on the phone. After receiving a used one, he and his manager embarked on a frustrating quest to secure a compatible phone base. There were many road blocks and dead ends.

Cluskey ultimately credits his then manager’s persistence with zeroing in on the right equipment, but the experience left a bad taste in his mouth, and when he heard a rumor last winter that the university was evaluating a new telephone system for 2014, he decided to look into it to see if he could make some suggestions on behalf of employees with hearing loss. (Cluskey is a former president of a local chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America, so he is used to advocating for the cause.)

His search led him to Pamela Souza, associate professor in the Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, who directs the School of Communication’s Hearing Aid Laboratory. Together, they learned that indeed new telephone solutions are being evaluated, but that much of the university’s equipment (phones, cradles, handsets, etc.) may or may not remain the same. There is a chance, however, depending on the technology platform the university decides to go with, that the school’s analog phone lines may be replaced with VoIP lines, channels that use a broadband Internet connection.

“We asked them if this change would affect users with hearing loss, if that had been taken into consideration,” Souza said, “and we quickly discovered that it hadn’t. Not from any lack of desire on their part, but because they didn’t know much about it.”

Souza said that she and Cluskey saw an opportunity to “try something that might make a difference.” And, she said, the unique three-way partnership she saw assembling in front of her was also a draw: “We had Ken, who’s knowledgeable about hearing loss and advocating for people who have it. I have experience on the research end. And we had a wonderful contact at Northwestern University Information Technology who really understood the equipment.”

This was Vikram Belum, NUIT’s Telecommunications and Network Services voice communications manager, who, along with everyone else at NUIT, Souza said, “was really responsive and open to our idea, even though it meant they were going to get a lot of extra work.”

The extra work didn’t daunt NUIT. “We were happy to partner with the School of Communication’s Hearing Aid Laboratory to identify a solution to help make phone conversations more pleasant and productive,” said Wendy Woodward, the director of NUIT’s Technology Support Services.

Belum spent several weeks researching new equipment and accessories, which NUIT then ordered. The new and existing hardware was then brought to Souza’s lab, where the proper equipment was on hand to test it. Cluskey and two others participated in the experiments.

When all was said and done, Souza wrote a research report. Belum, too, picked up a pen: he created a Quick Reference Guide, outlining the phones and accessories NUIT recommends for users with hearing loss, based on the group’s experiments, as well as details on equipment settings and how to get things up and running.

This information will go live on the NUIT Web site later this month and plans are afoot to share the information with the university’s human resources department, in the hopes that they, too, will make the information available on their Web site and at new employee orientations.

Northwestern faculty and staff can expect to see some cutting-edge new phone equipment in the future, including Bluetooth neck loops and binaural headsets. But, Cluskey said, “This wasn’t about the hardware so much as it was about educating employers and employees as to what’s available and what their options are.

“With managers as overwhelmed as they are these days,” he added, “to hand them another challenge like tracking down phone equipment can be very daunting. I felt that it was very, very important to make this information available to them. And I hope the word continues to spread.”