"In . . . Gospel, . . . reminds . . . disciples . . . they . . . be . . . light of . . . world . . . salt . . . the . . . . "
Imagine how hard and frustrating it is to miss half of what's being said at Mass because you have difficulty hearing. Every other word isn't completely missing. There's a sound -- there are syllables and inflection -- that you just can't quite make out, as if a faint radio broadcast crackles, hisses and fades, again and again.
Imagine missing only every third word.
"The funeral . . . Mary Lou . . . who died . . . two days . . . will be . . . 10 am . . . . The Rosary . . . be in . . . church at . . . on Monday . . . . ."
More and more parishioners -- not just the elderly, but also a growing number of baby boomers -- don't have to imagine. Week after week, they strain to hear the prayers, readings, homily, intercessions and announcements. They struggle to understand what others seem to catch so easily:
"In today's Gospel, Jesus reminds his disciples that they must be the light of the world, the salt of the earth."
"The funeral for Mary Lou Brown, who died suddenly two days ago, will be at 10 am Tuesday. The Rosary will be in the church at 7:30 on Monday evening."
Just how many parish members have hearing impairments? If a typical congregation follows the pattern of the population in general, one-third of people older than 60 and one-half of people older than 85 have hearing loss, based on statistics from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (one of the National Institutes of Health).
Even so, that doesn't mean a person self-identifies himself or herself as someone with that condition. ("My hearing is fine. People just mumble more these days. They need to speak up!") And it doesn't mean he or she will admit it publicly. Like deafness (meaning very little or no hearing and, often, the use of sign language as the primary way of communicating), hearing loss remains a largely hidden disability and carries a social stigma.
Those are two reasons a parish staff and council may be unaware that a sizable percent of their parishioners would greatly benefit from the church installing a system for "assistive listening devices" (ALDs) and continuing to promote its use once the building has it.
"A parish has many more members who are hard of hearing than are profoundly deaf, but a lot of the hard of hearing conceal their loss," said Rose Smith, director of Catholic Deaf/Hard of Hearing Ministry for the Diocese of Lansing, Mich., where about half the parishes have ALDs.
While newer church buildings -- constructed under Americans with Disabilities Act regulations -- will include a system, that doesn't necessarily mean the parish is using it or, if it's being used, that hard-of-hearing parishioners are taking advantage of it.
"They don't want to ask about the parish doing something to help them, and they don't want to be seen as hard of hearing," Smith said.
"It's embarrassing," said Monica Dodds (wife of the author), who belongs to St. Pius X Church in Mountlake Terrace, Wash. She said it seemed that only elderly men were using the devices, which were made available there about a year ago. Finally, the frustration of not being able to clearly hear what was being said from the altar and pulpit overcame her hesitancy to pick up a unit and try it. The difference was "amazing."
"It's hard to be prayerful or peaceful when you're constantly straining to catch what's being said, and at Mass you want to be both," Dodds said. "I tried hearing aids about 10 years ago, but couldn't get used to them. This isn't like that. This is like listening to a very clear radio station that I can adjust the volume to."
At St. Pius X, each receiver unit of the FM system is about the size of a deck of cards, features a single earpiece that fits around -- and not in -- the ear, and has a volume control. It can be picked up in the back of the church before Mass and then replaced in its charging cradle. The parish has 10 units and, at any Sunday Mass, many are being used.
"A number of parishioners asked about getting them," said the pastor, Father Sean Fox, explaining why the church added the system to the building's existing public address system. "I tried one. The sound is brilliant!"
At Sts. Charles and Helena Church in Clio, Mich., Father Gerald Ploof began checking into adding a system at his parish after the Lansing diocese began reminding pastors of the need to be more aware of, and offer assistance to, people with disabilities.
"I talked to Rose Smith," Father Ploof said, "and then we had a meeting with parishioners. It included a 'demonstrator model' of a system. I remember the meeting was at 3 or 4 in the afternoon and I thought maybe a half-dozen people would show up. Twenty did. I asked if this was something they thought the parish should get, and they said, 'Oh, yes!'"
Like St. Pius X parish, Sts. Charles and Helena chose an FM system. "We started with four units, and then we picked up two more. Some of the parishioners bought their own," Father Ploof said. "The system cost between $1,500 and $2,000 for everything."
Father Ploof sees it as money very well spent. "The reaction has been very positive," he said. "The units are used every Sunday. Parishioners tell me, 'Before, I couldn't hear the homily, and I couldn't hear the prayers. Now I can hear them and I can sing the hymns with everyone else, too.'"
"I'm not hard of hearing," Father Ploof continued, "so I didn't realize how frustrating it had been. Now we keep the units in the back and people pick them up going in and drop them off going out."
The parish continues to offer reminders about their purpose and their availability, the pastor said, and encourages parishioners to let visitors know the units are readily available.
"It's been wonderful!" said parishioner Geri Seymour, speaking on behalf of her husband, Ben.
"They've helped a lot," agreed parishioner, Margaret Jackelwicz, speaking on behalf of her husband, Jack.
(Because of their hearing loss, neither Ben Seymour nor Jack Jackelwicz could be interviewed over the phone by OSV.)
Their wives said both men, who are in their 80s, wear hearing aids, but without the ALD at church, they could hear very little if any of what was being said at Mass.
"Only the sound of the microphone comes through the system," Rose Smith said, explaining how an ALD differs from a hearing aid. "You don't hear the kid coughing in the pew behind you or any other competing noises. That's why the FM equipment is so nice."
So nice because, in a simple, effective and relatively low-cost way, the needs of hard-of-hearing parishioners are being met. Or, to put it another way, their prayers have been heard.
Assistive technology is often installed by adding equipment to a church's existing public address system.
As the Hearing Loss Association of America explains, assistive listening devices can be thought of as "binoculars for the ears." They increase the loudness of specific sounds by bringing them directly into a person's hearing aid or ear. They solve problems common among people with hearing impairments by minimizing background noise, reducing the effect of distance between hard-of-hearing people and the sound source, and overriding poor acoustics.
ALDs can be used in large areas like churches, at one-on-one meetings, in restaurants and even for television viewing at home.
Hearing Loss Association of America
Catholic Deaf/Hard of Hearing Ministry, Diocese of Lansing, Mich.
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders
Identifying a problem
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders offers this set of questions to determine whether or not a person has hearing loss:
Do I have a problem hearing on the telephone?
Do I have trouble hearing when there is noise in the background?
Is it hard for me to follow a conversation when two or more people talk at once?
Do I have to strain to understand a conversation?
Do many people I talk to seem to mumble (or not speak clearly)?
Do I misunderstand what others are saying and respond inappropriately?
Do I often ask people to repeat themselves?
Do I have trouble understanding the speech of women and children?
Do people complain that I turn the TV volume up too high?
Do I hear a ringing, roaring or hissing sound a lot?
Do some sounds seem too loud?
If you answer "yes" to three or more of these questions, you could have a hearing problem and may need to have your hearing checked by a doctor.
Bill Dodds and his wife, Monica, are editors of My Daily Visitor magazine and founders of the Friends of St. John the Caregiver (www.FSJC.org), an international Catholic organization that promotes care for family caregivers.