Why Cell Phones Are So Hard on the Hearing-Impaired          

by Tina Blue
September 9, 2001

     Many people, both those with normal hearing and those with hearing impairments, are surprised when I tell them that despite my own severe hearing impairment, I usually manage quite well over the telephone--as long as certain conditions are met.  I believe that many hearing-impaired people do well enough on the telephone if the people calling them are willing to take their handicap into consideration.
          In order for me to manage a telephone conversation, the person I am conversing with must speak very clearly, and he must speak directly into the telephone's mouthpiece.  This delivers his voice directly into my "good" ear (not so good, really--these things are relative), and no outside noise is able to interfere with the reception.

          But if the speaker mumbles or swallows his words, I can't understand him.  And even if he speaks clearly, I won't understand him if he tucks the mouthpiece under his chin, as so many people do.

          When my daughter Becky was a child, her face was so small that the mouthpiece of the telephone extended well past her chin.  She was also a sunny little girl, one who smiled virtually all the time, even while speaking.

          All that smiling is nice, of course, but it did muddy her pronunciation a bit.  (It also made it hard for me to read her lips when we were speaking face-to-face, though it might have led her to a successful career as a ventriloquist, had she thought to go in that direction).

          But the main problem was the fact that the mouthpiece was under Becky's chin rather than in front of her mouth.  Until her face got bigger, I had a hard time understanding my daughter on the phone.

          Telemarketers and others who use headsets for telephone work are also hard for me to understand, because although the mouthpiece on one of those headsets is sometimes (though not always) directly in front of the speaker's voice stream, it is also a few inches away from his mouth.  Even if the caller speaks clearly, that's more distance than my ears can handle.

          But cell phones are the biggest problem, and they keep getting worse.  The typical cell phone is so small that the mouthpiece is closer to the speaker's nose than to his mouth.  And each generation of cell phones seems to be smaller than the previous ones.

          The mouthpiece of a cell phone is not even within the direct path of the speaker's voice stream, which is a real problem for someone who has a hearing impairment.

          I can always tell when the person I am speaking to is using a cell phone, because his voice seems to come from such a distance--almost as if he were in another room.

          As soon as I realize the situation, I cut the conversation short.  What's the point of talking to someone when his voice is directed into the air rather than into the mouthpiece of the telephone?  Under such conditions there's no chance I will be able to understand most of what he says anyway.          
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