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Play It By Ear

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Problem Statement

California Lutheran University Student 2014 Design.
California Lutheran University Student 2014 Design.

Hearing aids are expensive, highly sensitive electronic devices that provide auditory access for people with hearing loss. The most common type of hearing aid worn by school-age students is the “BTE” or Behind-the-ear aid shown in Figure 1. This type of aid sits behind the student’s ear, with a tube that connects the processor to the ear mold inside the ear. Rather than risk damage to these sensitive devices, many students and their parents decide to forgo their use while playing sports – putting them at a disadvantage relative to their typically hearing peers and compromising their safety – or worse, these students give up in participating in sports activities altogether.

Special education teachers often encounter students experiencing problems and frustration during physical education and recreational sports activities. As hearing loss is an “invisible” disability, many coaches and teammates do not understand the difficulties encountered by the student with hearing loss and may become impatient or derisive when the student keeps asking people to repeat themselves, acts confused, or fails to follow instructions because of the inability to hear.

The issues of greatest concern for users of hearing aids with regard to sports are feedback, moisture, and impact.


Whenever something gets too close to a hearing aid, it creates a feedback loop and a high-pitched squeal is emitted. This creates a problem for many helmets and head coverings. A frequent suggestion to eliminate feedback is to alter the helmet; but this is not a viable solution. In an article entitled “Head-to-Head With Helmets and Hearing Aids” (Fifer, R., 2009), the author states “Current research on helmet design…suggests the padding around the ears should not be modified in any way for two reasons: First, altering the energy-absorption characteristics of the helmet would decrease protection against physical head trauma; second, the plastic case of the hearing aid was not designed to be used in traumatic impact situations. Impact may not only cause damage to the hearing aid but it possibly increases the risk to the skin and skull in the immediate area of the hearing aid.”


Impact can both damage the hearing aid and cause injury to the student if the processor is compressed against the skull. However, for protection, students must be able to use protective head gear. This is especially true for the legal requirement that children under the age of 18 wear helmets while cycling. For safety reasons, while cycling (especially in urban environments), children need the use of both their helmet and their hearing technology.

Based on U.S. hospital emergency room records, the following is a list of sports and the number of head injuries for children age 14 and under in 2009:

  • Cycling 40,272
  • Football 21,878
  • Baseball & Softball 18,246
  • Basketball 14,952
  • Soccer 8,392
  • Winter Sports 6,750

(American Association of Neurological Surgeons)

Protective equipment for athletes must be used for the safety of the student. Additionally, protection and use of the hearing aid needs to be maximized to allow students with hearing loss full participation in sports.


Moisture of any kind, including perspiration, can be damaging to the sensitive electronic components of hearing aids. Students playing sports or exercising in hot weather frequently report problems with their hearing aids that are caused by perspiration getting into the aid.

Based on these needs, our design team has developed a low-cost workable solution to address the needs of student athletes with BTE hearing aids.

Further Information

More information can be found by following the link here.