Technology keeps hearing-impaired parishioners 'in the loop' during Mass

Susan Sullivan, a member of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Parish in Beverly Hills, is pictured at her parish in 2020 with a sign informing hard-of-hearing parishioners of the parish's "hearing loop" system. Sullivan, who is a board member of the Michigan State Association of the Hearing Loss Association of America, says the technology allows her and other hard-of-hearing parishioners to fully participate in the Mass. (Photos by Janet Sugameli Biondo | Special to Detroit Catholic)

For parishioners like Susan Sullivan, the addition of a 'hearing loop' system was vital: 'I felt like I was included,' she says

BEVERLY HILLS — The crisp sound of the Eucharist breaking during holy Mass has a stronger, more spiritual feeling for Susan Sullivan since the installation of a hearing loop at her parish.

“When Father is consecrating the Eucharist and he snaps it — wow, I love it,” said Sullivan, a parishioner at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Parish in Beverly Hills.

Before the technology was installed, deaf or hard-of-hearing parishioners like Sullivan didn’t have the clarity in sound or speech to fully participate in the Mass.

Hearing loop technology, also called an audio induction loop, works by sending sounds directly to the telecoils inside of one’s hearing aid or cochlear implants. The system works by capturing sound through microphones, such as the one the priest wears on his vestments, which feeds into an amplifier and sends a current to the embedded wires in the church floor. Then, tiny wire telecoils built into hearing aids and cochlear implants pick up the magnetic signal, and speech is broadcast directly into the wearer’s ear.

The system was installed at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs a few years ago, and can also be found at a handful of local churches.

For parishioners with updated hearing aids outfitted with telecoils, or T-coils, the hearing loop brings a clearer broadcast of words and can also block out background sounds in the sanctuary, which can seem to “sound like noise bouncing around a cavern,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan, who has worn a hearing aid since her 20s, said for the hearing-impaired community, the technology leads to a more enjoyable and interactive appreciation of the Mass.

She is an advocate for the hearing loss community, even at her church, bringing awareness for special events and advocating for regular hearing screening for children and adults. More than 48 million Americans suffer from hearing loss, and it is the third most prevalent health condition in older adults, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. World Hearing Day, a recognition started by the World Health Organization, was celebrated March 3.

Sullivan, who is on the board of the Michigan State Association of the Hearing Loss Association of America, learned that churches can install hearing loops to assist parishioners in need. When Our Lady Queen of Martyrs was under renovation in 2016, she contacted her pastor and made a request for the installation of the hearing loop.

Susan Sullivan says she's grateful her pastor agreed to install a hearing loop system in her parish, Our Lady Queen of Martyrs in Beverly Hills, saying it's made all the difference in her ability to participate fully in the Mass.
Susan Sullivan says she's grateful her pastor agreed to install a hearing loop system in her parish, Our Lady Queen of Martyrs in Beverly Hills, saying it's made all the difference in her ability to participate fully in the Mass.

Her request was accepted, and the front, right section of the church, which has a capacity of about 200, is encircled for the hearing loop.

“When I learned it was put in, I felt like I was included,” Sullivan said. “Now I’m able to participate in Mass better because I can hear it. I feel like it’s made a world of difference.”

Meanwhile, at St Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township, the entire sanctuary as well as the church’s social hall and meeting spaces are equipped with the technology. The first system was installed more than 25 years and has undergone several updates, with the most recent completed last year.

Currently the St. Therese technology accommodates for more than 1,000 people to hear within the system.

“One of the neat things is that we also incorporated the use of projection, too, so throughout the entire Mass, the words of the Mass are projected, so that’s another worship aid,” said Chris Piebiak, director of family ministry for the North Macomb 2 Family of Parishes, which also includes St. Francis d’Assisi – St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Ray Township and St. Isidore Parish in Macomb.

It is difficult to monitor exactly how many parishioners are benefitting from the hearing loop, Piebiak said, but one thing is for certain: when it stops working, parishioners tell him.

Another parish, St. Regis in Bloomfield Hills, installed the hearing loop system during a church renovation in 2014, encircling the entire interior worship area inside the flooring, said pastoral associate Mary VonKoss.

“People do use it, and we try to make more people aware that it is available,” VonKoss said. “I know people say they can hear much better with the system.”

In addition, periodically the church administration puts reminders in the bulletin for people to use the system, VonKoss said.

Piebiak said it's important for the Church to remain “on the cutting edge to give our parishioners the ability to worship as easy as possible.”

Along with the hearing loop system, about two years ago, St. Therese of Lisieux installed a new system called LISTEN, which can work with Bluetooth-compatible hearing devices. To use the system, parishioners download the LISTEN app, pair their device, and are able to have the audio streamed directly into their earpieces.

“St. Therese of Lisieux recognized that not every user had the telecoil feature (in their hearing aids), however, nearly all modern hearing devices are Bluetooth compatible, hence the decision to install both systems,” Piebiak said.

In addition to the church’s commitment to offering updated technology, education is also at the heart of helping parishioners, Piebiak said.

“A few months ago, we hosted a health seminar (with local audiologist Nicole Rinehart from Hart Hearing Center in Macomb Township) which focused on hearing loss,” he said. “This seminar focused on measures people can take to preserve their hearing as well as what options are available to those who are experiencing hearing loss.”


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