By RaeAnn Slaybaugh
Having the right assistive listening system available to worshippers engages members with hearing loss, keeps parents of young children in the loop in the event of a quick exit, and even breaks down language barriers.
If you look at the statistics, it’s clear that hearing loss is a challenge that faces people of all age groups.
According to the Hearing Health Foundation and Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), an astonishing one in five Americans has hearing loss in at least one ear. Among children, about 30 per 1,000 have hearing loss. At age 65, this figure reaches one out of three. And, surprisingly, about 60 percent of deployed military service men and women have noise-induced hearing loss, tinnitus and other hearing injuries.
Odds are good, then, that your congregation includes quite a few members with hearing loss. As Richard McKinley, a manager at Contacta, Inc., points out, quite a few worshippers with hearing aids — as many as half or more — simply stop attending if they can’t hear the sermon.
“A church wouldn’t keep wheelchair users from attending worship services, but there are 15 times as many hearing aid wearers who don’t have access,” he asserts.
So, to ensure the Word is accessible to everyone, an assistive listening system is well worth the investment.
When it comes to accommodating worshippers with hearing loss, it’s largely a ministry — not necessarily a mandate — in America’s churches.
Clint Koch, sales director at Ultra Stereo Labs, Inc. (USL), explains why: The Americans with Disabilities Act requires all public gathering spaces to have an assistive listening system. “But, all churches are exempt,” he points out.
However, Mike Griffitt, a Listen-certified hearing loop trainer for Listen Technologies, says there are exceptions to this rule. “You need to address the ‘AHJ,’ or Authority Having Jurisdiction,” he explains. “For example, in the State of California, they state that churches must provide assistive listening systems in churches. They also state — and I’m paraphrasing, here — that when you provide an assistive listening system, it must offer 100-percent coverage of the facility, as you can’t discriminate against a person with a disability and tell them where they must be seated to take advantage of the system.”
Beyond whatever mandates might apply to churches, Tim Ridgway, vice president of marketing at Califone International, Inc., says an aging population — coupled with a greater variety of languages used in today’s houses of worship — has placed increased demands on houses of worship to accommodate all members.
“And, because the population is an aging population, it is more likely to require hearing assistance. Also, seniors are a lot more mobile these days,” cautions Ted Clegg, owner of ALDS Hearing & Voice Amplification Products. “So if they can’t hear the sermon, they’ll probably just go to another church.”
Or, as Listen Technologies’ Mike Griffitt points out, they might choose to stop going to church altogether. “They can be frustrated by not feeling connected, as it’s difficult to hear the sermon message with clarity,” he says.
Yet, aging members aren’t the only group that should be hitting church leaders’ accessibility radar. “The latest statistics show that GenX and Millennials are an emerging hearing aid market,” points out Chas Kuratko, vice president of business management for Siemens Hearing Instruments, Inc. “Returning veterans are another emerging market, as they suffer Tinnitus (ringing in the ears) often.
“Given all this — and the fact that people tend to go to church more regularly as they get older — assistive listening is bound to grow in the house of worship space,” Kuratko adds.
Listen Technologies’ Mike Griffitt agrees, saying his company is concerned about the younger generation’s constant listening to MP3 players — with ear buds or headphones — for extended periods, at unsafe levels. “We also see this demographic attending concerts with large-scale PA systems that are often contributing to noise-induced hearing loss,” he adds. “The total number of people across all age groups with hearing loss will, unfortunately, continue to grow.”
Even so, Janet Beckman, vice president of marketing for Williams Sound, says most churches don’t offer assistive listening systems in their sanctuaries — often, because the members who actually need them don’t press the issue.
As evidence, she cites a recent survey asking church leaders if they accommodate deaf or hard-of-hearing members. “Fifty-six percent said they don’t,” she says. “I think that’s because most members feel OK about vision loss. If they have to get glasses, it’s not a big deal. But, hearing loss still bears a stigma.”
USL’s Clint Koch agrees. “To identify its assistive listening needs, a church can ‘survey’ the congregation and find out how many people use the devices,” he suggests. “The only problem is that a lot of people don’t like to self-identify as having hearing loss.”
“Also, I think that a loud PA system is mistaken for an adequate assistive listening solution too often,” says ALDS’ Ted Clegg.
Contacta’s Richard McKinley agrees, citing a test conducted in a 1,750-seat sanctuary as evidence. “They conducted a quick test with their new, very high-quality sound system, and those with hearing aids comprehended less than 15 percent of the words,” he says. “With a hearing loop installed, that percentage rose to more than 95 percent.”
Obviously, then, the first step towards embracing assistive listening systems in worship spaces is to explain what’s on the market.
Types of assistive listening systems
FM systems. As Beckman points out, Williams Sound’s founder actually created the first AM listening system for a woman in his church. The technology has since evolved from AM to FM. So, houses of worship are a familiar market.
“An FM listening system works like a small radio station,” she says. “An FM transmitter, directly connected to the sound system used in a house of worship, broadcasts radio signals on preset frequencies — frequencies that the FCC has determined and restricted for use by assistive listening and language interpretation systems. These signals are then received by individual ‘radios’ — body-pack receivers tuned to the specific frequency in use.” Seventeen channels are earmarked by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for assistive listening, to which Williams Sound’s FM receivers are pre-tuned, or are user selectable with easy access to all 17 channels.
If a church uses its FM system beyond assistive listening — for language interpretation, for example [more on that later] — it can use of several of those frequencies.
“With our FM systems, we also have remote speakers,” Beckman says. “The remote speaker allows a group of people to listen to an FM broadcast in a cry room, nursery, office area, or any location where a remote speaker is needed and wiring is difficult.”
Infrared, or IR, systems. Infrared (IR) systems are another assistive listening option for areas of the church where privacy is at a premium.
“IR systems are like ‘invisible light’,” explains Andrew Kornstein, house-of-worship market development manager for Sennheiser. “They’re secure. Unlike FM systems, the signal doesn’t go through walls. So, these types of systems are particularly popular in government installations.”
Hearing loops. Although they’ve been widely used in Europe’s public spaces since the 1960s, hearing loops are an assistive listening option that’s just starting to gaining popularity in the U.S. church market. Contacta Inc.’s Richard McKinley is familiar with all the reasons why.
His own business is focused purely on hearing loops. He contends that they’re more discrete and accessible — two important traits when ministering to church members who might be sensitive about their own hearing loss. Hearing loops work with users’ hearing aids; nothing needs to be worn around the neck or over the head. “Also, hearing aids are tuned for one’s hearing loss,” McKinley points out.
Most commonly, he explains, hearing loop wires are hidden in walls, ceilings or floors, or under carpet. “And, in most cases, there’s no maintenance, headphones or other devices to clean,” McKinley adds. “Users just touch a button on their hearing aids, and they get good, clean sound.”
Listen Technologies’ Mike Griffitt says it’s simpler to install a hearing loop system in a new facility versus retrofitting an existing space. “It’s easier to lay down the flat copper tape for the series of loops in a phased array pattern before the carpet and pews get installed,” he says. “If it’s a brand-new facility, you can sometimes use a ‘burial-grade wire’ and place it in the concrete pouring of the floor.”
However, he points out, hearing loops can be installed into existing facilities. “It just takes some planning and coordination.”
Once a loop is up and running, worshippers with hearing loss simply switch on their telecoil- (T-coil-) equipped hearing aids when they enter the sanctuary. And, the signal is attuned to their hearing loss.
Griffitt says hearing loop popularity is being driven by individuals who have T-Coil-equipped hearing aids. “They’ve purchased this type of hearing aid technology, and they want to ensure that the places they frequent — churches, businesses, theatres and so on — have systems that are compatible with this technology. They want to have a great experience.”
When Griffitt says “a great experience,” he’s referring to a person’s ability to feel that they connect with what’s being said or presented. “They want to have the ability to easily hear ‘intelligible speech’ and feel a part of the overall experience,” he says.
“I’ve always said that out of any venue that could potentially have an assistive listening system, you’d think that there would be an emphasis by church leadership to ensure that everyone is able to hear the Word in their congregations.”
If a hearing loop sounds like a good option for your sanctuary, Contacta’s Richard McKinley points out that multiple loops will likely be necessary, especially in large worship spaces with 1,000 or more seats.
“It’d be tough to generalize how many hearing loops would be needed in a sanctuary that size — maybe eight or 10,” he says.
“But, seating design and building construction could warrant more loops.” And, by installing small loops and using a professional design, a church can avoid any chance of magnetic interference with instruments or video.
“If anyone proposed a ‘one big loop’ solution, I’d urge a church to run and hide,” McKinley advises. “In many cases, where installs have been done with large perimeter loops, the only place users can get good reception is way off in the wings or a couple of the outside seats, which defeats the purpose of universal accessibility throughout the seating area. To give you
an idea, only about 15 percent of my church projects have only one loop installed.”
A word about T-coils
For many church leaders, the term “T-coil” — as mentioned above — probably isn’t familiar, unless he or she wears a hearing aid. But, it’s an essential component of a worshipper’s ability to use several types of assistive listening systems.
T-coils aren’t just for hearing loop users, as ALDS’ Ted Clegg points out. “If a person’s hearing aid has a T-coil in it, the user can take advantage of just about any assistive listening system — by way of using a neck loop plugged into an FM or IR receiver, for example.
Contacta Inc.’s Richard McKinley points out that all neck loops and ear hooks need to be medically cleaned and tested before being handed out to users.
Siemens’ Chas Kuratko says 90 to 95 percent of his company’s hearing aids now come equipped with T-coils, or are designed to accommodate them as an option.
Even more options
When considering ease of use, the world’s first network-controlled assistive listening products — made by Williams Sound — are particularly house-of-worship-friendly.
“Today, A/V and IT have converged, especially in new builds,” explains Beckman. “The infrastructure is typically a network now, which means every A/V element can be run off of a laptop or tablet.”
Using a suite of Williams Sound’s network-controlled technology, a 9-to-5 A/V pastor could leave his second-in-command in charge of an evening performing arts event at the church. “If that secondary A/V minister runs into audio problems or RF issues, he could call the lead A/V pastor and have him or her troubleshoot it from home via laptop or tablet,” Beckman says.
“Adjusting the system is really simple. Setup can be completed by one guy standing in the sanctuary, using a laptop or tablet.”
Doug Gould, of WorshipMD.com, is a training consultant for Williams Sound products in today’s church market. “He commented that, ‘Megachurches will love this.’”
Another noteworthy assistive listening innovation is the UPC28C emitter panel from Ultra Stereo Labs, Inc., which puts out three channels, enabling a church to broadcast in multiple languages. “The panel enables listening assistive, narrative descriptive and closed-captioning,” Clint Koch explains. “The closed-captioning device sits in the cup holder. It’s designed for single users. If you’re one or two seats to the left or right, you won’t be able to see them. That’s by design — they’re supposed to be discrete.”
Koch points out that the three functionalities inherent to the emitter panel aren’t offered as stand-alone options for a reason. “It doesn’t make sense for us, from a cost and manufacturing perspective, to remove any one of those functionalities from the unit,” he says.
USL is also developing eyeglasses with built-in closed-captioning capability.
For a worshipper with hearing loss, another innovative assistive listening option is a personal, 1-to-1 communication-enabled system. Siemens’ Chas Kuratko knows quite a bit about these applications.
“As an audiologist, I’ve examined assistive listening from both sides of the aisle,” he explains. “Siemens’ expertise is in the business of hearing aids and miniTek [personal assistive listening] systems, not in wide-area application systems.”
Califone also offers some outside-the-box options for accommodating worshippers with hearing loss: two different wireless technologies. Both are popular in the education marketplace, but are also well suited to church sanctuaries.
The first application is a 10-person assistive listening system (WS-series) designed with tour guides in mind. This system has up a transmission range of up to 300 feet. “The transmitter has separate microphone and line inputs,” Tim Ridgway explains.
“The receiver has dual headphone jacks, so two listeners can listen at the same time.” Additionally, the receiver is the first of its kind to include a switch that limits the volume to 85 decibels for users who don’t have hearing impairments, according to Ridgway.
In this system, the transmitter and receiver are each the size of a deck of playing cards. They can be worn on a belt or around the neck. An expandable option, it’s available as a standard 10-person setup and includes all the necessary headphones and chargers, plus carrying case. “This particular assistive listening system would meet the needs of a large sanctuary need,” Tim Ridgway points out. “It builds in the flexibility to grow.”
The second system he recommends for house-of-worship applications uses wireless headphones and radio frequencies. A desktop transmitter (about the size of a VHS cassette) plugs into the audio source and has a separate microphone input. The receivers are built into individuals sets of headphones, with a 100-foot range. There’s no limit to the number of headphones which can be added.
“Unlike systems that are used in smaller rooms for educational purposes, these two systems have longer ranges from the transmitter to the receiver, Ridgway points out.
For added versatility, both systems can be used as stand-alone units and connected with an existing PA system. (NOTE: Califone has graciously offered two assistive listening systems — valued at $350 and $2,400 — to readers. See the ad on page 18 for giveaway details. Entries are due by September 30, 2013.)
Overcoming language hurdles
One added benefit of an assistive listening system is its language interpretation functions. Sennheiser’s Andrew Kornstein regards this functionality — particularly in worship environments — as a major emerging market.
“People have figured out they can start a brand-new ministry, and reach a brand-new demographic, with just a few thousand dollars,” he explains. “Fundraising for these new ministries is common. We’ve seen churches host special initiatives to fund language translation systems.”
Kornstein cites Sennheiser’s systems as a good option for churches. “Anyone can use them,” he says. “You just need a translator.”
And he’s not alone in extolling the virtues of language interpretation technologies in worship settings. Williams Sound’s Beckman cites Grace Church in Eden Prairie, MN, which uses portable body packs to translate to the Hispanic youth group during worship. (See sidebar, Williams Sound brings hearing assistance to 4,200-seat Grace Church, on page 19 for details.)“It’s part of their Latino ministry,” she says. “These systems enable simultaneous language interpretation using up to eight channels, without sound degradation.”
To encourage non-English-speaking worshippers to attend services, Beckman encourages churches to market the availability of language interpretation technology in several ways — in their sanctuary, on their signage, in bulletins and newsletters, on signs in the bookstore and café, and via word-of-mouth. “A church could even host seminars and workshops on how to use the technology,” she suggests.
In fact, Beckman and her team are so committed to ensuring language interpretation and hearing assistance offerings are spotlighted that the necessary signage comes standard with a Williams Sound FM system.
“So, when a church buys a system from us, they have everything they need to spread the word about its availability.”