Enabling Ears to Hear: The Church Leads

Anyone up for a good news story–of the church leading the culture in a direction we can all, across our differences, applaud? Prepare to smile.

In 1999, I had an amazing experience while worshiping at Scotland’s Iona Abbey. As a person with hearing loss, I could understand virtually none of the spoken word as it reverberated around those ancient stone walls. Thankfully, my wife noticed a hearing assistance symbol on the wall indicating a “hearing loop” system that could magnetically communicate to the inexpensive “telecoil” sensor that now comes with most hearing aids. When I switched on my telecoil I was astonished: the audio speakers were no longer high on the wall but were now in my ears, delivering customized sound for my own hearing needs. The delicious result was a crystal clear voice speaking from the center of my head!

During our annual sojourns in Britain, we have observed this simple technology becoming omnipresent–in auditoriums, in the back seats of all London taxis, at 11,500 post office windows, and in most churches and cathedrals. At Westminster Abbey, I hear better than most people–thanks to the hearing loop that makes my aids into in-the-ear speakers. So, I wondered, why not introduce this hearing aid– compatible listening assistance to the United States?

Back home, I installed a TV-room hearing loop, enabling my television to broadcast from inside my ears. Then, wondering if this would work in a demonstration community, I invited the churches and nonprofit organizations of my town–Holland and adjacent Zeeland, Michigan–to install hearing loops. With grant support for 40 percent of the installation cost, the overwhelming response was yes–and most of the initial installations were in churches. Today, virtually every worship place in Holland-Zeeland, and now also in nearby Grand Rapids, has installed a hearing loop. (See www.hearingloop.org for a complete list and further information.) I later learned that Rochester, New York, also had a number of hearing loops–again, with churches leading the way.

As word spread, people with hearing loss, often supported by hearing professionals, launched efforts to introduce hearing loops in New York City, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, New Mexico, Silicon Valley, Sarasota, Seattle, and Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, for example, worship places are again leading the way– with some two hundred recent installations. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg’s synagogue, Temple Emanu El (“the largest Jewish house of worship”), introduced a hearing loop, and now 450 subway stations have hearing loops, as will all future New York City taxis. In West Michigan, installations now include not only churches but the Grand Rapids convention center, the Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo airports, and even the 12,200 fixed seats in Michigan State University’s Breslin Center arena.

This user-friendly, inconspicuous technology (no need to locate, check out, and wear special equipment) has led to accolades and tears of joy from countless people with hearing loss. “I am home now and I can’t stop smiling,” wrote one woman. “The experience of actually hearing such clear sounds was thrilling and hard to describe,” said a very hard-of-hearing man, adding that “one has to experience the improvement. It seemed overwhelming.” “After installing our first loop system and seeing the reaction from the individuals with hearing loss, we immediately shifted our sales focus to loop systems,” wrote one system installer. “I experienced my first bone-crushing hug from a senior citizen lady at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Lodi,” wrote another installer.

In response, the Hearing Loss Association of America and the American Academy of Audiology launched the national “Get in the Hearing Loop” campaign. New companies and leading audio distributors are now introducing the technology nationwide. And news media–including NPR’s Science Friday, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, and National Geographic–have done hearing-loop stories.

The story is unfinished. Perhaps your church does not yet offer listening assistance that is directly hearing-aid compatible. But progress is accelerating, and spreading.

Sometimes the church, embarrassingly, lags behind the culture. But sometimes–as in the civil rights, antiapartheid, and anti-hunger movements–the church helps lead the culture toward God’s justice for all. Once again, good news for America’s invisible minority–its 36 million people with hearing loss–began when churches stepped up and led the way, by enabling their hard-of-hearing people to hear the word and by helping inspire the culture to follow.

David G. Myers teaches psychology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and is the author of A Quiet World: Living with Hearing Loss (Yale University Press) and the host of www.hearingloop.org.