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Beltrami County: Courtroom offers new hearing assistance system

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"Hear ye, Hear ye, Hear ye, Court is now in session." As of Thursday, technology installed in the new Beltrami County Judicial Center will enable hearing-impaired people to better hear and participate in courtroom proceedings.

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"I'm hearing impaired and wear hearing aids, so I know what it's like," said Judge Paul Benshoof.

Benshoof said the Beltrami County commissioners recognized the importance of installing technology in the new Judicial Center to assist hearing-impaired users of the courthouse to hear better. Infrared hearing systems were installed as part of the original construction of the Judicial Center. The infrared system allows a person to wear portable headphones while in the courtroom. The headphones automatically receive an infrared signal emitted from the courtroom's sound system, which is then converted directly into sound.

"Being able to hear in the courtroom is not just a matter of convenience; fundamental rights to due process and liberty are at stake every time someone appears before a judge," Benshoof said.

He said the headphones are frequently used every time court is in session by people who would otherwise not have been able to hear what was happening in court.

"It's always gratifying to see their eyes open wide in surprise when they realize how well they can hear with the headphones," Benshoof said.

But, he said, for many hearing-impaired people who wear hearing aids, the infrared system and the headphones don't always work as well, partly because of discomfort caused by the pressure of the headphones against the hearing aid and partly because the sound from the headphones is simply a generic amplification that might not meet the user's particular hearing loss.

Also, hearing in large spaces, such as a courtroom or church sanctuary, can be difficult.

"The large space sucks all the energy out of the words," Benshoof said.

And so at Benhoof's request, the Ninth Judicial District for the State of Minnesota installed an inductive hearing loop system in the first floor courtroom of the Judicial Center. This system, more commonly used in Europe than in America, produces a magnetic field that drives a device present in most hearing aids called a telecoil. The effect of this technology is that a person can set his or her hearing aid to the telecoil position while in the courtroom and listen to what's being said just as if he or she were talking on a phone.

Benshoof said he bought an inductive hearing loop system for his home to help him hear the television. He put the equipment under the couch, pushes a button on his hearing aids to switch on the telecoil function and can hear everything. He said he remembered the first time he used the device he was watching a production of "Jane Eyre."

"I could hear the trickling of the brook, the birds singing," he said. "It's like the TV is playing right into my ear."

These are sounds his hearing aids don't pick up without the new system.

Benshoof said Paul Maatz, Ninth Judicial District Court administrator, and Nancy Winger, assistant district administrator, accepted his request to install the hearing loop system at district expense. He added that the cost was relatively modest, about $1,000 for the unit and $1,500 for installation. Instead of equipment under the couch, the courtroom has a wire running under the floor around the perimeter of the room that transfers the sound electromagnetically to the listeners' hearing aid telecoils.

Benshoof said the Beltrami County Judicial Center is the only courthouse in Minnesota and one of the only courthouses in the country to offer a loop system for hearing aid users.

"The only other place in the country I could that has it is Albuquerque, New Mexico," Benshoof said. "This new system allows hearing aid wearers essentially to have their own private audio system that delivers pure, undistorted sound directly to their hearing aids custom-tuned to their particular hearing loss."

Another advantage, adds Benshoof, is that using the telecoil built into the hearing aids is inconspicuous; there is no need for hearing-impaired persons to call attention to their disability by wearing headphones.

For more information about the device, go to puredirectsound.com.

mmiron@bemidjipioneer.com

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