Aiken church provides boost for hard of hearing

Bill Bengtson, Aiken Standard, S.C.
·5 min read

Apr. 27—A local congregation has jumped on board with a hearing-assistance system that has won years of positive reviews at Aiken Community Theatre and the Etherredge Center.

A hearing loop system, largely designed to help people who use hearing aids, is now a permanent part of the layout in Trinity United Methodist Church's sanctuary. The Whiskey Road congregation put the technology into play for the first time during its April 18 worship service.

Cecil May, one of the project's boosters at the church, recalled being surprised by a report from one of his church neighbors — an older lady who was on hand for a trial run of the technology a few weeks ago.

"She said that that was the first time she'd ever heard words from the pulpit and understood them, and all the time, she'd been going to church," May said.

Trinity member Bonnie Nowak, who worked with May as an advocate for the installation, made similar comments.

"People are very excited about it ... They are hearing like they've never heard before, they've said."

She added, "I'm very pleased that our church has chosen to make that kind of investment, and I think it's a great opportunity for people that are hard of hearing. Either they have a hearing aid that's compatible or they can use a handheld hearing loop, and it's a neat thing."

The equipment is designed to cater to people who use hearing aids with T-coils ("T" for "telephone," in this case) and also for those who may use a headset or similar device.

In the case of the church, the hearing loop refers to an inconspicuous wire — similar in function to a radio antenna — that runs throughout the sanctuary about 11-12 feet above the floor.

"Basically, we're broadcasting the church sound system through the T-coil system, and the effect of it is, it allows people who have T-coil-equipped hearing aids to hear what's going on," said Stan Gossard, who runs the congregation's sound system.

"It's not truly radio. It doesn't work exactly the same way, but it's a close enough analogy to what people are familiar with."

While Trinity's wire is above the pews and largely out of view, in other scenarios, the wire runs through the floor, near the seating so that each patron has the option of connecting for audio assistance.

Thurmond Whatley, a longtime leader of Aiken Community Theatre, said a hearing loop has been a popular resource for his organization for years, and had the support of the City of Aiken and the Sertoma Club of Aiken through the installation process.

"Now, it may be kind of second-level technology, but it still works," he said, noting that the feedback regarding the system is "generally very positive" for people needing a boost. "If they lack the T-coil system or do not have hearing aids but still want help with hearing, we have headsets," he said.

One lesson learned in recent months with ACT has been that the receivers that are offered with headsets should be kept relatively close to the floor, and not, for example, in a shirt pocket or coat pocket. The idea is to keep the receivers near the wire, to keep the signal flowing with adequate strength for easy hearing.

In the case of Trinity, the bill for the equipment and installation ran between $12,000 and $13,000 — a good investment, in May's assessment.

"I can say, from my own experience, I probably heard about 90 percent of everything that was said, or more, and I usually hear about half, or less," he said. "Everything that goes through the audio system is transmitted ... to the receivers people have or to people's hearing aids."

Installing the equipment this month was Nick Hobbs, with Active Life Hearing Loops, of Woodstock, Ga. He noted that loop systems are part of the routine in the Supreme Court, the House of Representatives and "the entire basketball arena at the University of Michigan," and the technology involved has been around since the 1950s.

"It's simple, it's proven and it's stable," he said. "It's simple technology, because it just works on a basic electromagnetic field that's produced by an electric current. It's universally compatible with every brand of hearing aid."

The "proven" aspect, he said, is in the fact that the technology has been in play for decades in such places as train stations, museums, performance halls and church sanctuaries. It is particularly common in Europe, Hobbs noted.

"It's stable. It hasn't changed at all since it started back in the '50s, so it's not a kind of technology that you have to upgrade, so once it's installed, there's no maintenance required. It'll just be there and will work and last for as long as you have your building."

"It cuts off everything except what you're supposed to be hearing," said Marcia Harris, one of Whatley's peers in longtime leadership with ACT. Harris is hard of hearing and once worked as a speech pathologist, she noted.

Referring to hearing loops, she added, "The only reason people miss out is that they're not truly informed. They may never say to their hearing professional, 'Hey, listen. I go to the theater or the symphony, and I'm having trouble hearing.' The audiologist can help fix that."

Hobbs noted, "I see lots of tears of joy when we get an installation installed and people are hearing the church services for the first time in 25 years. It really is fulfilling."