At some point in life, most people know how it feels to be out of the loop.
They’re sitting at a table in a restaurant, but they’re too far away to hear what is causing the laughter erupting at the other end of the table.
They’re at the edge of a crowd and can’t hear what the speaker is saying.
Someone is singing on stage, but they can’t make out the words.
Imagine if that was an everyday experience.
That’s the kind of social isolation that people with hearing difficulties often face. Even with hearing aids, it can be difficult for them to hear in acoustically challenging places, such as a restaurant, a concert hall or a church.
But technology is available to help change that scenario in places where sound systems are used. And recently, St. Timothy Catholic Church installed a hearing loop to help parishioners who have hearing difficulties become full participants in the liturgy.
Charlie and Judith Reese of JC Audiology contributed the system components, which cost about $8,000. The Reeses are parishioners, and Judith is an audiologist with an office at 1541 Dale Mabry Highway, Suite 201, in Lutz.
Keith Thal and his friend, James Weeks, volunteered their time and expertise to install and fine-tune the system. They both are professionals in the electronics field and knowledgeable in the science of sound, Judith said.
Chase White, the director of music at St. Timothy, also played a key role.
“St. Timothy is the first and only Catholic church in Hillsborough (County) that has this technology,” Charlie said. “I doubt that there are more than three other churches of any denomination in Hillsborough that has this.”
A hearing loop, for lack of a better description, is an antenna that is based around the perimeter of a room or a building, Judith said. The antenna is linked to the sound system, and a person with a hearing aid that has an active telecoil — or T-coil — can pick up the signal.
“The person puts their hearing aid in the reception mode, and whoever is speaking on the microphone, it comes right into their ears,” she said. “Also, it’s appropriately set for them because it goes through their hearing aid, so it compensates for their problem areas for hearing.”
Hearing aids cannot be retrofitted to include a T-coil, but many hearing aids have them already, and their wearers simply are unaware of that fact, Judith said.
Those purchasing new hearing aids may want to ask about the T-coil, she added, so they can be activated in large spaces that are acoustically challenging.
“The audiologist would set it at the level that’s going to work best for that person,” she said. “They may have a knob or a switch or button on that device, to turn it on to the hearing loop channel, as it were.”
The technology has been around for decades.
“I think it’s about half of the hearing aids that are fit that have telecoils in them,” Judith said
It’s not a cost issue, she said. People just need to know to ask about it when they get their hearing aids.
“The hearing loop technology is just one more tool in our box to help people who have hearing impairments to live, full active lives,” Judith said.
At St. Timothy, there are two hearing loops. One goes around the chapel, on a ledge. The other, in the main sanctuary, was put in the conduit holding other sound system wiring.
“St. Timothy, in particular, is a very acoustically challenging structure because of the architecture,” Judith said. “It’s kind of a basilica style with a big high-rounded ceiling, all hard surfaces, terrazzo tile, hard walls, lots of windows and metal. Even for people who have good hearing, it can be tough.”
“There’s no carpet, no anything to absorb the sound,” Charlie said. “It’s all glass, marble and metal. So, that makes everything bounce off.”
Hearing loss, in some ways, is worse than other disabilities that are visible, because it takes people away from society, Judith said.
“You can’t engage,” she said.
And, at church — where people come for spiritual refreshment and guidance — they can feel left out.
“It’s very frustrating,” Judith said. They’ll say, “Everybody else is laughing at what the pastor said, but I didn’t hear it. They sang this beautiful song, but I couldn’t hear the words. Everybody else is crying.”
In large spaces, such as church, it can be especially difficult to hear because of background noises, the Reeses said.
“The music overwhelms the talking, or the people talking behind them, or children crying or laughing, or whatever,” Judith said.
That noise competes with the liturgy of the Mass.
“There are all kinds of accommodations they make for other disabilities, but very few accommodations for hearing loss,” Charlie said.
As the American population ages, the Reeses expect hearing loops to become more common, much like wheelchair ramps, hand rails and handicapped parking spaces.
“This really has taken root in Europe,” Charlie said, noting Westminster Abbey has a hearing loop.
The hearing loop project at St. Timothy took the better part of two years, Judith said. It took time to get the equipment installed and to fine-tune it, so it’s an effective way of helping people hear.
Rev. Kenneth Malley, pastor at St. Timothy, said he knows the project is appreciated by people of all ages who have hearing difficulties. He recalled one older woman telling him about a hearing loop system at Our Lady of Lourdes church in Dunedin.
She had tears in her eyes, Malley said. She told the priest, “I could finally hear what was going on.”
St. Timothy and Our Lady of Lourdes have hearing loops, and Our Lady of Fatima in Citrus County is investigating the possibility of adding one. The Diocese of St. Petersburg is unaware of any other church within the diocese that has the technology, but some churches may have installed one without informing the diocese.
The project at St. Timothy took some time, the Reeses said, but they think it’s worth the effort because it will help open people’s ears to the word of God.
Published May 21, 2014