Hearing loss group complains to FCC about iPhone

They want Apple to make it usable for those with hearing aids

A group representing people with a hearing loss filed complaints with the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last month, accusing Apple of not making its iPhone compatible with hearing aids.

The Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), a Bethesda, Md. advocacy group, filed formal complaints with the FCC in August, Brenda Battat, the HLAA's associate executive director, said in e-mailed comments about Apple's iPhone. "The phone [is] not usable with a hearing aid, either on the microphone or telecoil setting," said Battat. "Clearly it was not designed to be hearing aid compatible. It should have been."

Under its Section 255 regulations, the FCC requires phone manufacturers, including those selling mobile handsets, to make their products accessible to people with disabilities, if such access is "readily achievable." That standard is defined by the agency as "easily accomplishable without much difficulty or expense."

The FCC has also set benchmarks that spell out what percentage of a handset maker's line must be hearing aid compatible. Currently, each manufacturer must offer at least two hearing aid-compatible models.

People with hearing loss often rely on an induction coil, dubbed a "telecoil," in their hearing aids to use telephones, including cell phones. The telecoil detects magnetic energy and converts it into sound, amplifying the conversation as well as shutting out external noise; when the telecoil is switched on, the hearing aid's microphone is generally switched off.

In its complaint, the HLAA said Apple, when designing the iPhone, should have tested it for hearing aid compatibility (HAC) standards so that it could be used by hearing aid and cochlear implant users. "It was probably tested for HAC prior to release," said Battat. "As soon as they got the results they would have known it was not accessible to hearing aid and cochlear implant users."

Battat has met with Apple representatives twice since the iPhone's debut, including one meeting where the company demonstrated the iPhone. The demo left a poor impression, said Battat. "When held up to a cochlear implant and or a hearing aid it gives out a loud buzzing interference," she said.

Apple's designated FCC Section 255 contact, Mike Shebanek of its worldwide product marketing group, did not reply to a request for comment.

"Apple is well aware of the accessibility problems, not just for hearing aid users but for people with low vision or who are blind," said Battat. "They state a willingness to get up to speed with accessibility. Too bad they did not do it prior to release and not after."

Several bloggers have called on hearing aid users to complain to Apple, either by calling its public relations section or by posting comments on the company's iPhone support forum. Some followed the latter advice.

"As a long-time Mac user, a professional working with people with hearing loss and hearing aid wearer myself, this is HORRIBLE," said someone identified as LongTimeUser2 on the Apple message forum. "I love you Apple, but this one has to be rectified. Let's do it the easy quiet way. I'm sitting on US$300 or so wanting an iPhone. You want it?"

According to documents posted on the FCC's Web site, however, Apple may not be required to make changes to the iPhone. "Handset manufacturers that offer two or fewer digital wireless handsets in the US need not comply with the hearing aid compatibility compliance obligations," the FCC states.

Managers of the FCC's Disability Rights Office did not respond to calls for comment and clarification.

"In my opinion, Apple set itself up for the dissatisfaction from the disability community," said Battat. "Expectations were huge and they let us down. All the marketing hype just made it worse for them when they finally unveiled it and it was lacking so much access needed for people with disabilities."

Apple has until the end of this month to respond to the complaints filed with the FCC, Battat said.

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