ATU406 – Ed Hynes and Peggy Bell from Audio Directions

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Your weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist people with disabilities and special needs.

Show Notes: Peggy Bell Director of Marketing for Audio Directions  Ed Hynes CEO of Audio Directions www.AD4H.comwww.AmericanHearingLoop.comwww.HearingLoss.org
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Transcript:

PEGGY BELL:  Hi, this is Peggy Ball, and I’m the director of marketing for Audio Directions.

ED HYNES:  And I’m Ed Hynes, the CEO of Audio Directions.

PEGGY BELL:  And this is your Assistive Technology Update.

JOSH ANDERSON:  Hello and welcome to your Assistive Technology Update, a weekly dose of information that keeps you up-to-date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist individuals with disabilities and special needs.  I’m your host, Josh Anderson, with the INDATA Project at Easter Seals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana.  Welcome to episode 465 of Assistive Technology Update.  It’s scheduled to be released on March 8, 2019.

On today’s show, we are excited to have Peggy Bell and Ed Hynes from Audio Directions to talk about their loop system, a little bit about hearing loss, and just hearing about the company they work for and some of the neat things they do.

I don’t do a lot of opinion on to the show.  I like to keep the for our guests.  But before we get into the interview today, I did want to talk about — here in America, we have a store called Walmart.  Walmart is one of the biggest employers, if not the biggest, in the United States as far as private goes.  They have a job called greeter, and the greeter is the person that greets you when you walk into the store.  They say hello, have a great day as you are leaving, those kinds of things, and welcome you to the show.  They are getting rid of this position.  In getting rid of that position, it kind of disproportionately affects individuals with disabilities.  As someone who came from employment, I know how important it is for individuals to have a job.  I think it’s a good chance for Walmart to use assistive technology and other accommodations to help those individuals perhaps work in a different job in the store. Since we always talk about AT and accommodation on the show, I just thought I would throw those two cents in and maybe it’s a good time to reach out and find some accommodation to help people keep their jobs.  That’s all I’ll do for opinion this time, I promise.  Let’s get on with the interview.

Hearing loss affects many folks around the world, and there are limited way to access sound, especially in large groups, public places.  Our guests today are Peggy Bell and Ed Hynes from audio directions.  They are here to talk about their loop system and about audio directions and how it can help individuals with hearing loss. Peggy, Ed, welcome to the show.

PEGGY BELL:  Thank you, Josh.

ED HYNES:  Thanks, Josh.

JOSH ANDERSON:  Before we get into talking about everything, can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

PEGGY BELL: Sure.  As I said, my name is Peggy Bell.  I’m a writer and designer with experience with business-to-business technology, marketing, and publishing.  My first real job was with a trade magazine for Professional Pilots. Most recently, I’ve been with audio directions learning a tremendous amount about the ways that assistive technology can help people in their lives.

ED HYNES:  I’m Ed Hynes.  I’m a career technologist.  I’ve done a series of startups, most recently spinning audio directions out of the company that I last ran.  I’m motivated by the good things that we can do with technology, and audio directions is a great example of that.

JOSH ANDERSON:  Very cool.  I like the way you guys came from different backgrounds but ended up in the same place.  I agree with you, that’s one thing that always keeps me motivated, is the things that technology can do for folks.  Before we get into talking about audio directions, can you guys tell me about hearing loss and how prevalent it is in the world and maybe some other information about it?

PEGGY BELL:  I attended my first local chapter meeting of the Hearing Loss Association of America in February of 2017, so it’s been just about two years.  The friends I made it their all have different levels of hearing loss, and they’ve had hearing loss just recently or maybe for their whole lives.  But what I found is that they are fierce and ambitious advocates, and they were very hard trying to help people with hearing loss to navigate and be more effective.  Hearing loss affects 48 million Americans, and some will estimate that that’s even higher. The CDC most recent number was 61 million.  Most people who have hearing loss don’t volunteer that they have it.  Their tendency is to wait 7 to 8 years to even get help with their hearing loss.  In the meantime, they will do the best they can to navigate, sometimes bluffing and relying on other people.  So once a person actually faces the fact that they do have a hearing loss and get help, they go to an audiologist or hearing aid specialists, and they are fit with hearing aids that address their specific needs.  Those hearing devices, whether it’s a hearing aid or cochlear implant, work very well in a small, quiet space.  I think the range is known to be about five or six feet.  Unfortunately, in noisy, public spaces, the job these hearing aids do to amplify all sound is actually counterproductive. Amplification leads to distortion and reverberation, making it very difficult, if not impossible, to understand speech, and certainly makes it very difficult for people to going to a large public space such as a theater to enjoy the concert or a comedy show, theatrical performance.  I ask people often, “How do you explain life with a hearing loss?” What they say is that it’s so difficult because it’s an indivisible situation for them.  Nobody can tell when they walk into a room that they have the issue, that they may not be able to understand what’s being said to them.  In certain situations, it’s really quite scary for people.  If they are in a medical environment, whether it’s an emergency situation, in an emergency room, or it’s in the dentist chair, or whatever, not being able to hear clearly can be really frustrating.

JOSH ANDERSON:  For sure.  You said it’s kind of invisible. I definitely agree, because yeah, you can’t see it appear even if the individual does have hearing aids, those are darn near invisible these days.  It’s very hard to tell.

PEGGY BELL:  That’s an interesting point you bring up.  The fact that hearing aids are getting smaller and smaller is interesting and does impact this particular assistive technology. The audio induction loop or amplifier that you use in a loop solution delivers an audio signal to the tele-coil, a little piece of copper that is built into the hearing aid.  With little hearing aids, there is no room for a tele-coil. They said 81 percent of hearing aids still are equipped with a tele-coil.  For those who don’t have that type of hearing aid, they can take advantage of a hearing loop receiver, which is like a tele-coil that you would find in a hearing aid, in this device it hangs around your neck, like a lanyard, and it picks up the audio signal.  

But the fact that people eventually do get hearing aids is huge for them.  It’s like changing.  People to have met say that it makes all the difference in the world, being able to participate fully in life again, to hear the sound of a bird, to hear their grandchildren, to be able to get the joke in a theater.

JOSH ANDERSON:  It can definitely be very life-changing.  I want to get back to the hearing loop here in a moment.  The first, can you tell me a little bit about audio directions itself?

ED HYNES:  Audio directions was incubated at a company called Em-Com, an emergency communications company based in Trenton, New Jersey.  It’s a company that I was running when we stumbled upon the opportunity to help hearing impaired.  Em-Com had provided a solution based on the same technology that audio directions uses for use in transit environments.  You can imagine someone on a subway platform, a very noisy space, pressing a blue light, red button phone and open to have a conversation with someone on the other end and not being able to hear what they are saying.  It was Em-Com that actually pioneered the use of induction loop technology in transit for the MTA over 10 years ago.  So when I joined Em-Com, there was already a legacy of success with induction loop systems in transit and also in museums. Em-Com had placed induction loop technology in the 911 Museum in downtown New York at the American Museum of natural history at midtown New York and at the Museum of Holocaust in Washington DC, so some pretty high profile installations.  

We got quite excited about the business when we discovered that, for many years in America, the efficacy that Peggy was talking about earlier was beginning to take hold.  You would be hard-pressed to go into a pharmacy, a bank, or a grocery store in the UK or most of Western Europe and not find an induction loop for use as a member of the hearing-impaired community. That’s not quite true in America, but it is becoming true.  So with that in mind, we did some research here we begin to reach out again.  We made a more aggressive sales effort. Peggy came on board and began providing support in marketing and advocacy.  Lo and behold, we hired a salesperson here in New Jersey as well. So between New Jersey and Florida, we were beginning to turn up some new opportunities, and audio directions was officially born and incorporated in December of 2017.  As of October 2018, it has spun off completely so we are no longer co-residing with Em-Com.  We have our own books, our back office, and are running our own business.  I have left my post as CEO of Em-Com and joined as full-time CEO of audio directions as of October 2018.  Peggy is on her way to join us full-time as well.  As I said, we have sales and marketing resources that Peggy provides naturally.  We also have a chief financial officer who was a member of the Em-Com and has now joined audio directions.  

We are very proud to announce that we have merged our operations and our companies with a company called American Hearing Loop base in South Carolina.  It’s led by a gentleman named James Stillwell.  James is one of very few recognized leading experts in induction loop design, engineering, and integration.  That’s the company.  We are excited about 2019.  We are lined up new opportunities and are wrapping up opportunities from 2018.  One of our flagship accounts was Huntington Hospital system here in New Jersey.  Down in James’ neck of the wood in South Carolina like that he just finished up a comprehensive looping project for the Peace Center, which is the largest performing arts center in the Carolinas.  I could go on and on about our customers.  We are diversifying our products, meeting needs as they are described by customers from healthcare to retail.  We are in early-stage conversations with retail banks.  We’ve had success in assisted living facilities. There is no place, no pharmacy, no grocery store, library, no bank, no court of law, that should not be looped. We are knocking on all those doors.

JOSH ANDERSON:  I’m not super familiar with the whole hearing loop system here can you describe that a little bit more to make we

PEGGY BELL: Sure.  Basically a hearing loop system is based on audio induction loop technology.  You take any audio signal, whether it’s from a single microphone or from a huge public address system, and you feed the audio signal into a loop amplifier.  The amplifier will actually drive the audio signal through a copper coil — I don’t know if you could call it a network.  The copper coil runs under carpet or ceilings or a countertop.  The copper coil generates an electromagnetic field which is the way that we deliver the audio signal to a tele-coil receiver.  The tele-coil receiver, or the T-coil, as people refer to it often, is built into the hearing aid.  82 percent of hearing aids come with a T coil.  100 percent of cochlear implants are equipped with a T coil.  The system involves what people walking with, what personal hearing a device they have, and it’s basically doubling the effectiveness of their home hearing aid, because I installed hearing loop system is driving that filtered audio signal directly to the T coil receiver.  You could be standing in the middle of Home Depot and have a conversation, if you had a one-to-one loop system present with you, you would not hear all that background noise.  Hearing aids work well in small spaces, as I said earlier.  They amplify sound to the threshold that you need it amplified.  But in a large space, there is reverberation, distortion, and the hearing aid is actually counterproductive.  People can’t understand what’s being said or they can enjoy the audio experience.

So the hearing loop system is seamless, effective, something that gives everyone in the house a good seat. You could be in a theater with thousands of seats, and each and every one of them is going — that loop signal is going to reach every one of those seats.

JOSH ANDERSON: Looking at the website — and I only got a little bit of time to look at it, but I saw that one of the devices is actually a seat cushion.

PEGGY BELL:  Yes.  That copper coil — in a large setting, your amplification system and your sound source are separate from the copper that carries the audio signal.  That large theater, Isaiah said, every seat is a good seat.  But in a situation where you have a one-on-one conversation or have one pharmacist talking to two people, you might want them seated at a countertop, and the copper coil that you would normally find under the carpet, which would be looping the whole building, would just go into the seat cushion and it creates a very small field of the audio signal.  I could be sitting on one side of the countertop, speaking into a microphone that feeds the audio to the little amplifier which feeds the signal to the seat cushion.  It could feed that same signal to a loop underneath the counter itself or to an overhead disc or to the ceiling.  But we create a very small, tight space that creates crystal-clear sound and also delivers HIPAA privacy so that not everyone in the room who has a T coil would hear that conversation with the person with the hearing aids and over the doctor, the pharmacist, the accountant, whoever they happen to be speaking to.  The seat cushion is looped.  We also have a format that can be looped.  That generates a small, tight space of audio field.

JOSH ANDERSON:  That’s a great idea.  I never thought about HIPAA considerations.

ED HYNES:  One of the reasons we focus on these one-on-one implementations is that we see there are major public facing organizations, private and public organizations, that have a responsibility to discretion and confidentiality.  Those conversations are directed by HIPAA, and IDEA, in the case of education, and financing has similar regulations.  Unfortunately, if you are not assisted in this way and you are hearing impaired, you can end up in a shouting match.  There is legal precedent in the pharmaceutical business, pharmacy specifically, where a gentleman shows up to have a discussion about his medication, and he is not understood, so the pharmacist begins to speak more loudly. Suddenly everyone in the pharmacy knows his condition.  These are concerns.  More importantly, there are people who are simply at risk who shouldn’t be at risk. If you are a pharmacy, a bank, a retail operation, and you’re not doing this, you are missing an opportunity to have, at this point, a competitive advantage over others who are not doing every thing they can do.  We can’t imagine in the United States a grocery store without a ramp for wheelchair access.  It’s the same thing.  The fact that someone’s hearing loss, as Peggy pointed out, is an invisible condition, just means that it’s taking longer for advocates to have the effect in public spaces in ways where audio directions plays a role.

JOSH ANDERSON:  How much does one of these systems cost? Or is it kind of depending on the need, the size of the business, those kinds of needs?

ED HYNES:  We’ve talked about installations that are quite large in some instances.  As I said, there are 1000 seat theater that we’ve looked on one hand, and then there are one-on-one conversations.  On the high end, it’s not unusual for a facility to spend anywhere from $15-$75,000 looping a large space.  A simple hall or conference room is middle five figures, so well under $10,000. When you get into a campus, some of our projects require a commitment of over $100,000 to get every point of contact, as it were, with a hearing loop.  One on one’s range — we have a wonderful device we call an ILP. It’s actually a portable — it contains everything.  It has the copper coil, the amplifier, in a microphone all built in. It’s on a little stand and you can put anywhere.  You can tuck under your arm and take it into a conversation with the patient in a hospital or at a bank counter.  The system is under $1000.

The other important component of what we do that comes at a cost is ongoing training and support. These systems, once they are set up, you typically don’t have a lot of interaction.  You turn the microphone on and the loop works.  If there is an issue, our support agreement is there to support you.  It’s the one on ones, wherever you have customer facing staff, you have a lot of turnover.  It’s important.  There are many things to learn culturally as there are technically.  We have a very robust physical and online training program that we offer as part of an ongoing package.  That tends to be about 10 percent of the cost of the initial implementation. It varies on the number of hardware units that are implemented.

JOSH ANDERSON:  I’m glad you mentioned the training part, but there’s also the cultural part.  It seems like a lot of people skip over that.  They would say how to use the technology, but then don’t go on with how to just be able to talk to be able and work with them.  You touched on that you are really looking forward to 2019, so I wanted to know, do you guys have anything in the works?  What does the future hold for audio directions?

ED HYNES:  Thanks for asking.  We tend to think about the future in three or four different ways. One, how are we selling?  Two, what are we selling?  What’s the product?  Three, who are we selling to?  Four, what are we doing from an engineering support perspective to make sure we are successful?  In terms of sales, we are going to go originally.  We have the East Coast covered and are beginning to make some inroads at West.  We will make some stops along the way in places like Chicago and Texas.  We will grow our sales force a bit in the process. We will continue to drive awareness in our partnerships with advocacy groups.  The HLAA is primary among them, but Peggy has mentioned a number of others. Our work with them has been perhaps the substance of our most successful projects.  It’s because advocates do a great job of raising a lot of cultural awareness — and we describe that a moment ago — with the training we do before we even step foot.  We do end up talking to people who have already been convinced, if they’ve been convinced, by an advocate, they turn out to be a much better customer.  There will be more of that in the coming year.

The products are going to get more sophisticated.  Are amplifier design is now four years old, so we are going to be redoing the amplifier. There are some challenging environments in which we operate where a thing called a phase array will be important. That involves using two amplifiers at the same time in a certain way.  We will be building a better solution to that.  Will also be providing network access to all of our devices so that we can remotely monitor and manage them.  Along the product lines, I have a background in AI and machine learning and digital signal processing.  We will be tapping some of that, some of my colleagues in that space, to improve the quality of the sound that we deliver and to do intelligent analysis of the noise in the room.  Some of this technology has found its way to hearing aids, and it’s high time that it found its way into induction amplifiers.  I hope we can be a trendsetter in that space.

I talked about regional expansion, but we will also be looking for vertical expansion.  I mentioned retail banks, libraries, courtrooms, the U.S. Postal Service, large arenas.  We will be doing more of the same as well.  I think our work in the healthcare system will speak for itself. We are actually in many conversations with other hospital networks.  We hope to see those come to fruition.  Assisted living facilities as well.

Finally, in terms of engineering and support, James Stillwell will be providing a supervisory QA role on all of our installations.  We do have a great relationship with the top designer the sellers in America, and James will be our man looking over their shoulder as they provide us contracting resources for the implementation we do.  That will occupy a third of his time, and we are hoping he can spend the other two thirds of his time on pure product design and innovation.  We will be building out his laboratory and pursuing new opportunities.  The market that’s diversifying and expressing its needs to us newly every day.  We learn something every day from a customer or potential customer, and we are responding and doing our best to create products that will serve the needs of many.  Those are our hopes for 2019.  Peggy, did I miss anything?

PEGGY BELL:  Not really.  I would just add briefly, a quick story on a friend of mine here in Florida who was called for jury duty.  He wears two cochlear implants.  He went to the courtroom ahead of his date, trying to find out what options he would have for assistive listening devices.  How are they going to accommodate him?  He doesn’t know ASL.  When the woman behind the counter saw his cochlear implants, she thought she was being kind and offered to waive him from having to serve jury duty, right there on the spot.  He is a retired engineer.  He’s similarly minded.  He wanted to do his duty, he wanted to serve.  He didn’t force the issue, but he took the waiver and left.  I think that’s really sad.  I think that’s horrible.  This woman working in the courtroom wasn’t purposefully insulting to him. She just didn’t know.  She just didn’t know.  For 2019 and beyond, to me, so much of it is going to revolve around empowering people with a hearing loss to advocate for themselves and bring the awareness to a completely different level so that you can say that, yeah, for everyone that needs a wheelchair ramp, we have wheelchair ramps, and for everyone who needs assistive listening technology, it’s there.  So even though we are involved in business-to-business sales and marketing, is going to help a lot to have people who will benefit from the technology to speak up for themselves and ask for what the ADA guarantees them, or should guarantee them.

It’s not just being ADA compliant.  It’s about inclusivity.  What’s the culture of your organization?  Do you include everyone?  Is it a seamless process, or do you leave people out?  People are starting to notice that that makes a big difference in all types of businesses and different issues.

JOSH ANDERSON:  If our listeners want to find out more about audio directions, how with they find things out?

JOSH ANDERSON:  We have a website.  It’s www.ad4h — that’s the numeral “4” —  ad4h.com. Americanhearingloop.com is another great resource.  I would also recommend the Hearing Loss Association of America’s website, which is hearingloss.org. They actually have a huge section on advocacy and educational opportunities, assistive listening technology, and you’ll find a lot of materials written by Doctor Juliette Serkins, who is a retired audiologist who is the looping advocate for the national organization.  She works all over the country trying to make looping happen. She is a tremendous resource. That website is a great resource.

JOSH ANDERSON:  We will put links to those over in our show notes. Thank you so much for coming on the show.  That’s a lot of great information and I can’t wait to find out more plug maybe will have you on the show in the future and hear all the new things and see how 2019 went.

ED HYNES:  Thanks, Josh.

PEGGY BELL:  Thank you, Josh.

BRIAN ANDERSON:  Do you have a question about assistive technology? Do you have a suggestion for someone we should interview on Assistive Technology Update? If you do, call our listener line at 317-721-7124, shoot us a note on Twitter @INDATAProject, or check us out on Facebook. Are you looking for a transcript or show notes? Head on over to our website at  www.EasterSealsTech.com. Assistive Technology Update is a proud member of the Accessibility Channel. For more shows like this, plus so much more, head over to AccessibilityChannel.com. The opinions expressed by our guests are their own and may or may not reflect those of the INDATA Project, Easter Seals Crossroads, or any of our supporting partners.  That was your Assistance Technology Update. I’m Josh Anderson with the INDATA Project at Easter Seals Crossroads in Indiana. Thank you for listening, and we’ll see you next time.

***Transcript provided by TJ Cortopassi.  For requests and inquiries, contact tjcortopassi@gmail.com***