You’re wearing your hearing aids, sitting at a conference presentation, feeling confident that you’re understanding what’s going on, when it happens. The audience reacts to something the speaker said, and you have no idea why. Until then, you’d thought that you were grasping enough of the presentation, but you’ve clearly missed something good. Reality check: your hearing aids might be good but you still can’t hear like a hearing person. I’ve been there. And I’ve found that when I’ve been able to get a good FM system set up at conferences, I can catch a lot more of the speaker’s remarks and subsequent discussions than when I try and go it alone with just my hearing aids. Getting FM systems to work effectively, however, can sometimes challenge even the most intrepid academic. So I thought that I would share what I’ve learned through several decades of requesting and using FM systems at conferences. I’ve occasionally used Real-Time Captioning (CART) and ASL interpreters at conferences, but someone more expert should post about those.
What is an FM system?
Frequency Modulation (FM) systems involve a paired transmitter and receiver that provide additional amplification to either a headset or, even better, directly to our hearing aids. That additional amplification can be invaluable in some difficult-to-hear situations. The audio signal is transmitted via waves within a narrow range of the FM spectrum—yup, the same as non-satellite radio. FM systems are sometimes called Assistive Listening Devices (ALDS). At conferences these systems can help by amplifying speakers’ remarks, audience questions, and ensuing discussions, as well as elevating conversations around posters above background noise.
Requesting FM systems at large conferences in the US
Because of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), large conferences in the US will have a box to check on the registration page to request accommodation. If they provide an open response box, I typically write:
“I need a FM system with 60 decibels of undistorted gain. The system should have a neckloop or induction earhooks that work with the telecoil in my hearing aids. Headsets are not compatible with my hearing aids.”
Through years of bad experiences, I’ve learned to provide very specific instructions.
Although I provide these specifics, I am often disappointed when I arrive at the
conference center. Many conference FM systems are pretty weak and only provide only a small amount of clear amplification (maybe 15-20 dB). This might be okay for someone who has a mild hearing loss—such as some with recently acquired loss—but it pretty useless for me. At other conferences, such as at the 2017 American Geophysical Union, I’m offered a setup as in the photo at right.
- Me: These are not compatible with hearing aids
- Clueless but earnest conference liaison: Oh yes, they are! You just put the headset over your ears.
- Me: Um no. I use behind-the-ear hearing aids and my microphones are behind my ears. This is why I specifically requested a neckloop to directly communicate with the telecoil in my hearing aids.
- Clueless but earnest conference liaison: A what?
- Clueless but earnest conference liaison: Oh. Well, why don’t you just take your hearing aids out and use the headset instead?
- Me: Umm no. My hearing aids are tuned for my particular frequency spectrum of hearing loss. I asked for 60 decibels gain for the system to boost above what my hearing aids offer and to compensate for people speaking softly, people not speaking directly into the microphone. . . That sort of thing.
- Clueless but earnest conference liaison: Huh. Well, we don’t have anything like that.
After such unfruitful conversations I usually begin sorting out my own accommodations with my personal FM system (more on that in a bit). The few times that I’ve pushed for conferences or their sites to find an neckloop or a stronger FM system, I’ve never had success. For example, at one conference, a team of six technicians met with me to tell me that there was not a single induction neckloop to be had in the entire city of New Orleans—their hands were tied. Sure.
Warning about accommodation requests:Although conferences are becoming more responsive, I’ve found that about a third of the time, my requests on the registration forms are ignored. I never hear back from the conference, and when I show up they have no idea what I’m talking about. So as part of my conference prep, I now contact them about a month before the meeting if I haven’t received notification. I also budget an extra hour or two when I first arrive at the conference to sort out the accommodations.
Paired FM systems versus direct wired rooms
With paired FM systems, one transmitter is paired to one receiver that you carry with you. The transmitter must be set up in the conference room in advance of the session and is usually patched into the sound system so that your receiver picks up signals directly from the room’s microphones. In order to set this up, large conferences need to know which sessions you will attend several weeks ahead of time. This means that you can’t pop from one session to another as our hearing peers might do at large conferences. Also, if two HoH people want to attend the same session, the room may need to have two transmitters patched into the sound system.
Newer (or newly renovated since 2012) convention centers in the US and UK may have built-in transmitters throughout the convention hall. This means that you can take any receiver into any room and instantly get amplification without setting things up ahead of time. This flexibility is quite nice! The picture at right shows a charging rack of FM headsets and induction loops for the Washington DC Convention Center. I was really looking forward to using those at the 2018 AGU meeting, but unfortunately, all the sessions in my discipline were in the Marriott hotel next door and the system didn’t work at all there.
Small conferences and meetings outside of the US
For small conferences, as well as meetings outside of the US where the ADA is not in effect, I bring my personal FM system. At the top of this post are pictures of the FM system that I first started using around 1994 (left) and my current outdated fourteen-year-old system (middle). I can’t get this set repaired anymore, so I’m going to get a new one like the one on the right. Some benefits of personal systems over conference-provided systems is that personal systems are more powerful. My first FM system had audio boots that hooked directly to my hearing aids (left picture) which reduces signal degradation that can happen with neckloops (middle image).
At small conferences, I put my transmitter at the lectern before each session to help me catch more of the speaker’s presentation. Alas, this doesn’t help with questions and discussions, which can be a large challenge. At some conferences where microphones are used for questions and discussions, I ask the AV crew to patch my transmitter into the sound system. Right is a picture of all the different adaptors that I bring with me to ensure that my transmitter will work with the venue’s sound system. Some of these may be outdated.
While patching my transmitter into the sound system has worked very well in the past, I’ve had problems lately. Maybe sound systems have become more fussy about patching in auxiliary outputs. I am also not sure whether the newest FM systems, which use Bluetooth rather than FM signal, even have input jacks. Another hack that I came up with is to put my transmitter in front of a speaker (the photo at left is my transmitter taped to a microphone pole in front of a speaker stand at the 2018 Southern California Earthquake Center annual meeting). This hack allowed me to access the presentations and discussions that used microphones.
FM systems in poster halls
If the poster hall is crowded, you can aim the microphone of the FM system transmitter towards any speaker to elevate their voice above the background noise. This approach has worked well for me when using my own FM system. Note that the systems provided by convention centers are not mobile; it is best to bring your own to use in poster halls.
FM systems are expensive (~US$1000 – $4000), and like hearing aids, are often not covered by US health insurance. Full-time students in the US are eligible for personal FM systems through vocational rehab (degree of coverage depends on income). Many audiologists may not be aware of this (my own weren’t!), but check with the disability office at your university and they can hook you up with your state’s vocational rehab office. These FM systems are worth getting before you graduate! Some employers do purchase FM systems for their workers because they can be critical for career success; however, I’ve yet to meet an academic who has successfully negotiated an FM system from their employer (and would love to hear if you have). While insurance didn’t cover my last FM system, I was able to use a health spending account through my employer that saved me from paying taxes on the device. It is my understanding that outside of the US, personal FM systems are nearly always paid for out of pocket.
Why am I so pushy?
Since I end up using my personal FM system most of the time at large conferences, you might wonder why I keep requesting accommodations. I do so because I want the conference center to know that we are here. I want them to know that deaf/HoH academics should be considered when they are planning their meetings and ADA accommodations. If we don’t make waves, they will believe that the level of accommodation currently offered is satisfactory. I’ve heard too many stories of older academics who stop attending conferences because of declining hearing, and younger HoH academics discouraged from academic careers because of the difficulty of networking at large conferences. We owe it to ourselves and our community to be counted, advocate for flexible, effective amplification systems, and share our successful strategies.
Is my experience consistent with your own? What successful strategies have you used for FM systems at conferences?