by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
A man wrote,
I am going to approach my church about installing a hearing loop system. It is going to be a “hard sell” because the church already has a largely-unused FM system and apparently, I am the only person interested in, and familiar enough with, looped systems in our parish.
I would like to gather as much information as possible before I approach my pastor. Could you provide me with contact information about installers in my area who might be willing to work with me on making a loop system attractive and economically feasible to my parish? Before I nominate myself to a new “hearing assistance ministry,” I will need to have the equivalent of a “feasibility study” in order to assure success. Needless to say, I will get only one shot at this, and if I fail the issue will probably be placed in limbo for the next 20 years.
I hear you. You need to build a strong case for a hearing loop system. However, before you even consider involving loop installers to do a feasibility study—because it’s almost certainly feasible—(and I’ll give you the name of a good loop installer in your area when the time comes), you first need to get the pastor and church members on your side. You don’t do that by telling them how much money they will have to spend to put in a hearing loop system, especially when they have what they think is a good FM system already in place!
Rather, first you have to show them why the FM system they currently have is not “functional” for hard of hearing people. You see, at the moment, they are proud of what they think is a good system for helping hard of hearing people hear better. Therefore, in order for this project to be successful, you need to change their mindset.
They need to understand that the system they now have actually isn’t “working” for hard of hearing people—or else they’d be using the FM system, wouldn’t they? Then explain why it doesn’t really meet the needs of hard of hearing people. Once they understand why hard of hearing people aren’t using the FM system, you can propose the solution—a system that hard of hearing people will actually embrace—a hearing loop system.
By that time, the battle is more than half won. The rest is essentially “details”.
Why Hard of Hearing People Don’t Like/Use FM Systems
Many hard of hearing people do not use FM systems in churches and other public meeting places. It is instructive to discover the reasons why. Therefore, to begin with, you need to document why the existing FM system is not being used. Below are some of the reasons you’ll want to investigate.
Note: these issues do not just specifically apply to FM systems, but apply to all assistive listening systems for hard of hearing people.
1. Is the FM system working properly?
If your church’s FM system doesn’t work well, people will try it out once and then dump it. For example, in one church I recently visited, I asked them if they had an assistive system for hard of hearing people. They immediately took me to their table at the back of the church and showed me their FM receivers laid out there.
I thought, “Great. Now I’ll be able to hear.” Was I ever disappointed. The sound was so weak/poor through the FM receiver that I couldn’t hear—even at full volume. I heard better with my hearing aids than when using their FM receiver (and that wasn’t saying much because I still missed much of the service with my hearing aids. That’s why I needed an assistive device in the first place.
In addition to the overall FM system being set up properly, find out if there is someone checking each of the FM receivers before each service to be sure they are in good working condition. Giving someone a broken FM receiver, or a receiver with a dead or weak battery is not going to help them. As a result, they will quickly learn not to use the FM system.
Do the hard of hearing people in your church hear beautiful, clear sound though the church’s FM system and FM receivers, or not? You want to find this out too. Perhaps that is one reason why so few hard of hearing people are using the FM system.
2. Do people even know the FM system is there?
Does everyone attending your church know there is an assistive listening system in place? If you don’t have prominent signs telling attendees that there is an FM system in place and how to access it, how will they even know of its existence? Don’t expect them to ask. Few will. They will just assume you don’t have anything for hard of hearing people.
For example, I visited another church in my town. When I went in, there were no signs indicating they had any assistive listening systems in place. I asked a greeter if they had such a system and he wasn’t sure, but to his credit, he did know the person who would know. He took me to her. And, yes, they had an FM system. But there weren’t any signs anywhere to let me know that fact.
Furthermore, the FM receivers weren’t visible. Guess where the FM receivers were? They were hidden behind and under a counter in the foyer. Unless you knew to reach behind the counter in a certain spot (you couldn’t walk behind it as it was pushed against a wall), you were out of luck.
So the second thing you need to find out is whether everyone in your church (and don’t forget the visitors) know where the FM receivers are. That is why having signs up in prominent places is so important.
3. Do people know how to use the FM system?
Another thing you need to find out is whether the hard of hearing people in your church know how to use the FM receivers. For example, in yet another church I visited, they had two kinds of FM receivers. One had a simple on-off-volume control knob. Almost anyone could figure out how to use it. However, a newer version of the same FM receiver had a button you had to push down and hold for 3 seconds to turn it on (and the same to turn it off). If an elderly person didn’t know that, they’d never get it to work.
Once they turn the FM receiver on, does the average hard of hearing person know how hear with it? Do they know they have to wear headphones, or use earbuds, or a neckloop? Do they know they most likely have to take their hearing aids off in order to use the system? If it seems too complicated to them, they won’t use the system.
4. Is the FM system even sanitary?
Have you considered sanitary issues? If the hard of hearing person has to wear headphones or earbuds in their ears, are they sanitary?
Would you put earbuds in your ears that have been it other people’s ears? Who knows what may be on them now. Would you wear headphones that other people have worn? Well, neither will hard of hearing people.
Therefore, either you have to sanitize them after each use, and let everyone know you do this, or supply new ones each time (and that can get expensive).
5. Are people required to take their hearing aids off in order to use the FM system?
Another thing to investigate is, do hard of hearing people have to take their hearing aids off in order to use your church’s FM system in order to hear? Think about it. It’s asinine to require a hard of hearing person to take his “ears” (hearing aids) off—which are specially fitted to his exact hearing loss, and for which he paid thousands of dollars—in order to use the church’s sound system that is not specifically adjusted to his hearing loss.
Your church’s assistive listening system should complement, and work together with, your parishioners’ hearing aids in order to make them into awesome hearing devices. It just doesn’t make sense to force hard of hearing people to take their hearing aids off in order to use the FM system—and few will do it.
Is this what your church is requiring hard of hearing people to do? If so, don’t be surprised if they choose not to use the church’s FM system.
Maybe your church supplies neckloops so hard of hearing people don’t have to take their hearing aids off. This is definitely a step in the right direction. But even so, they still have to pick up an FM receiver and neckloop. Few hard of hearing people will bother to do this—but perhaps more than are willing to take their hearing aids off in order to use your FM receivers.
6. Will using the FM system make them stand out?
So far we have just looked at some practical reasons why hard of hearing people may not be using your church’s FM system.
Now, let’s look at an even more important issue—the role a hard of hearing person’s emotions play in whether they will use an assistive listening system or not. We humans are emotional beings. Because of this, our emotions determine, to a large extent, what we will and will not do in any given situation.
This is an extremely important point. Few hearing people appreciate just how strong hearing-related emotions can be in hard of hearing people.
Hard of hearing people typically do not want to do anything that will draw attention to their hearing losses or make them stand out in any way. This often causes them acute anxiety and embarrassment—and those are strong emotions!
In fact, hard of hearing people are so sensitive to the issue of even wearing (almost-invisible) hearing aids that most hard of hearing people refuse to consider hearing aids in the first place. And you think they will wear even more visible FM receivers? Not a chance!
This means that if you require hard of hearing people to wear something visible, very few will do so. Yes, there are some like me that will use FM receivers, but we are an extremely-small minority. You’ll likely find that this is the main reason your church’s FM system is so under-utilized.
Why is this? Most hard of hearing people are very aware of the stigma of being thought stupid because they can’t hear. For example, if you ask me what time it is and I just nod and smile at you, you immediately think the elevator stopped one floor short of the penthouse. Your first reaction is not that I didn’t hear/understand what you just asked me. And on my part, I may be too embarrassed to clue you in.
Most hard of hearing people just want to hide their hearing losses and appear “normal” so they won’t be thought stupid. Thus, they won’t ask for, or wear, anything that might draw attention to their hearing losses. Remember, we are talking emotions here, not about being rational. So never discount these strong emotions that are at play behind the scenes.
Hard of hearing people think that just picking up/carrying/wearing an FM receiver makes them stand out—and that is the last thing they want to do. In fact, just going to pick up an FM receiver (even if they are visibly laid out) is a stumbling block for many hard of hearing people. And perish the thought that they should have to ask someone for one because they can’t find one. Few hard of hearing people will ever do it.
Furthermore, consider how they are going to hear via the FM receivers. Is the church sensitive to their need for “invisibility”? For example, does the church supply headphones that fit over the top of their heads? You’re almost never going to get hard of hearing people to wear headphones in public—that’s much too visible! Even earbuds that fit in a person’s ears call attention to themselves when they put them on or take them off—not to mention the wires visible going from their ears to the FM receiver.
These issues may seem trivial to hearing people, but they are often major hurdles to hard of hearing people. I emphasize again that we run more on emotions than on rational thought. Therefore, not only must an assistive listening system work properly and let hard of hearing people hear beautiful, clear sounds, but also it must not fuel their anxiety and embarrassment over the stigma of having a hearing loss. Therefore, in order to be used, an assistive listening system should not require them to ask for special accommodations, pick up extra equipment such as an FM receiver, or wear equipment that is visible in any way.
The problem with your church’s FM system is that it just does not meet these requirements. Hence it is grossly underutilized. It’s a shame no one told them that before they spent the money to install an FM system.
Here’s the Solution
What is the solution? Obviously, you need a system that hard of hearing people will use. This means a system that does not require hard of hearing people to pick up and use any special equipment, and one that lets them remain “invisible” as to their lack of hearing.
That’s where hearing loop systems have the advantage. As long as there are adequate signs around indicating a hearing loop is in place, hard of hearing people don’t have to call attention to their hearing losses by asking someone where to pick up the FM or infrared receiver, by figuring out how to use it and having to take off their hearing aids in order to use it. Thus, they gain the benefit of their expensive hearing aids in addition to the church’s hearing loop. Nor do they have to wear visible equipment in order to hear.
With hearing loop systems, they wear the hearing aids that are already safely tucked away in their ears. They just switch their hearing aids into telecoil mode, and by doing so connect to the church’s hearing loop system. That’s it. No extra equipment. No embarrassment. No anxiety. Just beautiful, clear sound piped directly to their hearing aids.
You see, the easier a system is for the average hard of hearing person to use, the more they will use it. That is why hard of hearing people love loop systems. Not only do loop systems give beautiful, clear sound, but also hard of hearing people can easily access any loop system with just the touch of a button on their hearing aids. It’s that simple.
Because of this, a far greater percentage of hard of hearing people use hearing loops than use other assistive devices that require separate receivers such as FM and infrared systems, even though they all give good quality sound.
In the final analysis, “the best system is the one that is used,” and when it comes to hard of hearing people, that system is a hearing loop system.
I can hear you asking, “This all sounds good, but do hard of hearing people actually use hearing loops if they are available?”
Let me give you an example as proof that hard-of-hearing people much prefer hearing loop systems over FM systems in church services and other group meetings.
One fair-sized church that seats about 1,800 people at each of its morning services had an FM assistive listening system installed. How well was this system utilized? It’s shocking, but roughly only 1 FM receiver was checked out each Sunday—about 4.3 per month. (Maybe that’s about equivalent to your church’s FM system usage.)
Now get this. When this same church installed a hearing loop system, and put up the appropriate signs so everyone knew it was there, within a few months the number of hard-of-hearing people using the new loop system via the telecoils in their hearing aids jumped dramatically to 600 users per month!
Now that’s what I call success! That is why you want your church to install a hearing loop!