My conversation with Mathias Bahnmueller started as pretty much all my phone interviews do. “Can you hear me?” he asked, and I replied affirmatively. Then I asked him the same question. His answer was yes — he could hear me very clearly. And this was a tiny miracle.
That’s because Bahnmueller suffers from hearing loss so severe that a year ago he underwent surgery to install a cochlear implant — an electronic device in the inner ear that replaces the usual hearing mechanism. Around a million patients have undergone this increasingly mainstream form of treatment, and that’s just a fraction of those who could benefit from it. (Of the 360 million people worldwide with hearing loss, about 10 percent would qualify for the surgery.) “For those who reach a point where hearing aids no longer help, this is the only solution,” says Allison Biever, an audiologist in Englewood, CO who works with implant patients. “It’s like restoring a signal in a radio station.”
With this new integration, the iPhone transmits directly to the cochlear implant. It’s like a bionic ear:
Merging medical technology like Apple’s is a clear benefit to those needing hearing help. But I’m intrigued by some observations that Dr. Biever, the audiologist who’s worked with hearing loss patients for two decades, shared with me. She says that with this system, patients have the ability to control their sound environment in a way that those with good hearing do not — so much so that she is sometimes envious. How cool would it be to listen to a song without anyone in the room hearing it? “When I’m in the noisiest of rooms and take a call on my iPhone, I can’t hold my phone to ear and do a call,” she says. “But my recipient can do this.”
I’m a sucker for a good accessibility story.