By Lauren Anderson
The Gospel reading ends and it sounded muddled. Now, as the sermon begins, it’s hard to piece the words together, like attempting a phone conversation during bad reception. No one else can tell, though, because hearing loss is an invisible disability.
For the 36 million Americans with hearing loss, attending worship services can be an isolating experience. Reverberation, background noise, or even a quiet minister can make it difficult to hear a message coherently.
David Myers, a professor of psychology at Hope College who has experienced this problem many times, described it as “being cognitively locked out and stuck there.” But then Myers attended a service at Iona Abbey in Scotland. As Myers listened to the cloud of sound reverberate off the 800-year-old stone walls, his wife pointed to a sign with a T on it, which referred to a small component in hearing aids called a telecoil.
Myers flipped the telecoil switch on the back of his recently purchased hearing aid. Suddenly, the verbal fog of noise distilled into a crisp voice reaching the center of his head. Myers didn’t know this level of clarity was possible in church.
The T sign indicated that Iona Abbey was equipped with a “hearing loop,” a wire surrounding a room which sends magnetic signals from an audio system to hearing aids. A hearing aid’s telecoil receptor, a component found in 69 percent of hearing aids, picks up the signal and amplifies it directly to the ear, acting as a personal loudspeaker. With the flip of the hearing aid’s telecoil switch, the vast sound distance between priest and pew is eliminated, allowing the person to hear with the clarity of a one-on-one conversation.
After experiencing hearing loops in Europe, where the technology first emerged 40 years ago, Myers knew he needed to bring this discovery home to Holland, Michigan. Since his return, Myers has advocated for hearing-loop systems in venues throughout Western Michigan. In the past 13 years more than 350 venues, including churches, schools, libraries and businesses throughout Western Michigan, have installed loops. His advocacy has spread nationwide, with churches at the forefront of the movement.
St. Francis of the Valley Church’s hearing loop has become vital to the church’s ministry since its installation several years ago, the Rev. Daniel Messier says. Located in the Arizona retirement community known as Green Valley, St. Francis serves a congregation widely affected by hearing loss. Many members rely on the loop during worship. The church is equipped with loops in the sanctuary and parish hall, and provides signs throughout the church to raise awareness of the system. Messier says the loop is essential to the mission and ministry of the congregation, as it increases accessibility for all members.
“We have now broadened our possibilities in worship,” Messier said. “I think our numbers would be much lower if we didn’t have that program, because if someone feels isolated and can’t hear what’s going on, it affects their participation.”
Most American churches use FM assistive hearing technology, which delivers microphone sound to a user’s ear using headphones and a handheld receiver box. Typically, FM systems require users to go to the back of the church to pick up the device and are used by multiple people, raising hygienic concerns. The equipment is also one-size-fits-all and tends to be incompatible with each user’s hearing needs.
“FM systems are well-intended, but people don’t really want to look different. They would rather not hear. So there are a lot of people just sitting in church not hearing well,” said Juliette Sterkens, an audiologist and advocate with the Hearing Loss Association of America. “If you are the grandma of the bride in a wedding, are you going to go to the back of the church, pick up the device, and come back? Or would you rather discreetly turn on your telecoil on the back of your hearing aid?”
Approximately 17 percent of American adults report some degree of hearing loss, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Hearing loss affects 30 percent of people age 65-74 and 47 percent of those 75 or older.
Hearing loss has often gone unnoticed in church, making it a “great invisible disability,” Myers said. Many churches have not addressed this accessibility problem simply because they do not know it is an issue. Many church members do not talk about their hearing difficulty, and some end up leaving because they can no longer fully participate in the worship.
Churches are beginning to recognize this problem, however, and have installed loops to accommodate the needs of their members.
“Churches led the way in Western Michigan,” Myers said. “Churches were the first adopters. They wanted people to hear the Word and so they pioneered it. Sometimes in our culture we see church following cultural trends. Here’s an example where the church can pat itself on the back.”
Sterkens says word-of-mouth endorsements are fueling the movement, which is how it started for her. As soon as she heard about the system at a talk by Myers in 2008 and witnessed a group of people experience the hearing loop for the first time, Sterkens knew she had found the missing link in hearing assistive technology. Since then, Sterkens has promoted the system through advocacy, writing, and speaking across the world. With her husband, retired engineer LeRoy “Max” Maxfield, she founded Fox Valley Hearing Loop, a business that helps others get “looped.”
“Over the last three years, [my husband and I] have been crawling through church basements installing hearing loops because we’re so convinced this is the right thing,” Sterkens said. “And we attend hearing loop dedication services where people have just sat and cried, saying, ‘I can hear without a lot of effort.’ And that’s something I just don’t get tired of.”
Lauren Anderson studies journalism at the University of Wisconsin.