On Sunday, Don Porter sat in the same place he always sits when he serves as usher at the First Unitarian Society of Schenectady: at the top of the aisle, near the church’s entrance.
But for the first time in years, Porter heard every word spoken during the service.
“There’s a person who often contributes to the service who has a faint voice,” said Porter, who wears two hearing aids. “I heard everything he said.”
The First Unitarian Society recently installed a hearing loop in its sanctuary, known as the Great Hall. A hearing loop is a system of thin copper wires that radiate electromagnetic signals that can be picked up by a tiny receiver, called the t-coil, that’s already built into most hearing aids.
The hearing loop at the First Unitarian Society is located under the carpeting of the Great Hall.
The wire transmits sound through a magnetic field, rather than acoustically, which means that people with hearing aids receive the signal through their t-coils without hearing a lot of distracting background noise. In addition, the sound they hear is clear and rich.
“It’s kind of like Wi-Fi for hearing aids,” said Porter, of Colonie. “It’s an invisible communication medium.”
Donald Bataille, who runs the Rochester-based Hearing Loops Unlimited and is himself hard of hearing, agreed. “It’s a very clear signal,” he said. “It’s like you’re wearing a pair of high-fidelity headphones.”
Although hearing loops are fairly new to the Capital Region, the First Unitarian Society is not the first church in the area to install a hearing loop.
In 2012, Westminster Presbyterian Church in Albany installed a hearing loop system in their Assembly hall, and early this year installed a hearing loop in their sanctuary. Next week Capital Repertory Theatre will become the first theater in the area to install a hearing loop.
Paul Czech, a Wynantskill attorney who serves on the board of Capital Repertory Theatre and is also a member of the Albany chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America, said hearing loops eliminate the stigma associated with requesting a headset “that identifies you as someone with a hearing problem.” He predicted that the hearing loop at Capital Repertory would draw people who are hard of hearing to the theater.
“This is something that will increase our attendance substantially,” he said. “The hearing-loss community is supportive of entities that do things to help them.”
Last Sunday marked the second week of use for the hearing loop at the First Unitarian Society.
Porter and his wife, Lois, pushed their church to install the hearing loop, which was put in by a team of volunteers and cost about $2,000. They received assistance from Bataille, who will also install the hearing loop at Capital Repertory Theatre.
Bataille said people are still learning about hearing loops and what they have to offer.
“There’s a lot of education that’s still needed, both for hearing aid users and audiologists,” he said. He noted that Americans With Disabilities Act guidelines issued in 2010 require places of public assembly where microphones are used to install assistive listening systems such as hearing loops.
The Rev. Priscilla Richter, who serves as minister at the First Unitarian Society, estimated that between 15 percent and 20 percent of her parishioners are hard of hearing. She said the problem is broader than people realize.
“Hearing impairment is not limited to those in their seventies and eighties,” she said. “Younger people are becoming more hearing impaired. My generation is becoming hearing impaired due to concert noise, and other types of noise. The hearing loop is not just for our oldest members.”
The Great Hall is an unusual circular shape, and Porter said that the area where he sits when serving as usher is “not well covered” by the church’s sound system. “Most of the time, I sit in a better place,” he said. “When I’m sitting in a more central location, I can at least hear the minister.”
Porter, 70, said he began losing his hearing about a decade ago.
“I’ve been missing increasing amounts over the years,” he said.
On May 22, the Albany chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America will host a 30th anniversary gala at Capital Repertory Theatre. Appearing at the event will be composer Richard Einhorn and the Scotia-based Musicians of Ma’alwyck, who will perform selections from Einhorn’s repertoire.
Czech learned about hearing loops from a 2011 New York Times article about Einhorn. The composer lost his hearing in 2010, and “despaired of ever really enjoying a concert or musical again.” But during a performance of the musical “Wicked” last year at the Kennedy Center in Washington, he found that the music was “perfectly clear, perfectly clean and incredibly rich,” the result of a hearing loop installed at the venue.
Czech said he’s excited about the gala, because it will introduce many of the Capital Region’s hard-of-hearing residents to hearing loop technology.
“What’s really juicing me is that most of the people who suffer from hearing loss have never experienced a hearing loop before,” he said. “Now they’ll get to experience spoken word and music.”
Czech lost his hearing in 2011 as a result of a battle with bacterial meningitis, and has since been fitted with cochlear implants. He is now an advocate for installing hearing loops in as many places as possible.
“In other parts of the world, this technology is widespread,” he said, noting that hearing loops are much more common in Europe.