Ham Radio and Disabilities

Disabilities often frustrate communication, as I know from personal experience as one of an estimated 7.6 million Americans with hearing difficulty.

I am also a federally licensed amateur radio operator (ham), joining more than 727,000 licensed hams in the United States and more than 2.5 million globally. Amateur radio teaches electronics and communication theory, provides communication when all other means fail, and facilitates better understanding among people and countries. It is apolitical, nonprofit, and inclusive. Anyone, except an agent for a foreign government, can be a U.S. licensed ham. I have spoken with 11-year-olds and with a gentleman who was 102. Through use of my radio and a wire between trees, I have contacted other amateur radio operators in all but five states and on every continent but Antarctica. I have an Amateur Extra Class license, the highest license available. There are three licenses, each with increasingly challenging licensing examinations but with correspondingly greater privileges. The first consists of 35 questions regarding basic theory, frequency allocations, operating procedures, and safety. There is no requirement to learn Morse Code, although this mode is often the most effective in breaking through atmospheric noise. Practice licensing exams are available online at no cost. A license exam, offered through a local club, requires $15. The license lasts 10 years. Flea markets (hamfests) often offer bargains on equipment, making it possible to begin operating for less than $200.

As my hearing becomes worse, I’ve investigated equipment and techniques to continue in the hobby. Fortunately, hams are an innovative bunch, and I was able to find resources to help not only myself and others with hearing loss, but those with visual and motor impairments as well.

Hearing Impairment

For hearing impairment, I have found anything that reduces noise and amplifies or emphasizes wanted sounds over unwanted sounds to be beneficial. Such devices include hearing aids with T‑coils or Bluetooth®. I discovered that over-the-ear headphones would couple inductively with the T-coil in some hearing aids. Others have used Bluetooth similarly. I presently use an over-the-ear headset.

   Filters and digital signal processing help eliminate noise, and a graphic equalizer can boost the sounds you want to hear. The December 2016 issue of IEEE Spectrum introduces technology that might find its way eventually into new hearing aids. Researchers have developed filtering that significantly improves the ability for hearing-impaired individuals to discriminate speech in a noisy environment.

Hams also communicate by using digital protocols and Morse Code. A ham can type on a computer a message that is translated to a radio signal sent over the air to a similarly equipped station that translates the signal into a typed message. Digital protocols and the pure tone signals of Morse Code are often more effective than voice for communication in noisy conditions. Deaf hams also use light indicators and touch (fingers on a speaker cone, for example) to communicate.

Visual Impairment

For 8.1 million visually impaired Americans, online audio licensing lectures and other resources are available through the Courage HandiHam Program (https://handiham.org). This international, educational, non-profit organization helps those with physical disabilities, vision loss, and reading disabilities become effective amateur radio operators. An annual fee of $12 provides access to audio lectures, license and equipment manuals, ham radio books and periodicals, two remote base stations, ham radio study assistance, help locating ham clubs and examination sessions, and a daily on-air net.

The American Radio Relay League (ARRL), a nonprofit United States association of amateur radio operators, provides articles on its website (http://www.arrl.org/access-to-amateur-radio-for-the-disabled) and in its monthly journal, QST, regarding equipment, electronic projects, and techniques for the visually impaired. Projects include an audio wattmeter and a device that provides audio indication of how well an antenna matches a transmitted signal.

Motor Impairment

   Some 30.6 million Americans have trouble walking or climbing stairs or use wheelchairs, canes, crutches or walkers. Of those, about 19.9 million have difficulty lifting and grasping.
For those with limited or no motor capability, sip and puff technology (http://www.infogrip.com/sip-puff-switch.html) can be used to operate switch-activated devices. The March 2004 issue of QST describes a puff and sip key, and the May/June 2010 issue of another ARRL publication, QEX (http://www.arrl.org/files/file/QEX_Next_Issue/May-Jun_2010/Bern.pdf), describes construction of a keyer paddle to emulate a PS/2 keyboard and mouse. According to the latter article, the combination could provide hands-free operation of a computer.
Amateur radio is a great hobby for people with disabilities, or difficulty getting out of the house to meet people. You can make friends all around the world! For more information contact Palouse Hills Amateur Radio Club, they meet at American Legion Log Cabin in Moscow, ID every fourth Wednesday beginning at 6:30 pm.