Hearing-impaired members of the Episcopal Church of St. John Baptist in Thomaston have recently been able to participate more fully in the services of the church, as a new hearing induction-loop system has been installed and brought into use.

Hearing-impaired people usually find that the simple amplification provided by hearing aids is at best an imperfect tool for assisting them. The typical hearing-impaired person has great difficulty in perceiving where a sound comes from, and in separating out wanted sounds from background noise.

For these (and other reasons), they find that understanding a speaker at a venue such as a church, with its large interior creating echoes, the shuffles and coughs of the congregation and the background noise of passing traffic, can be very much more difficult than it is for a person with normal hearing, and any help that technology provides can be very valuable.

The hearing loop works by transmitting the speech through a magnetic field, which is picked up by special coils, called telecoils, or T-coils, in the wearer's hearing aids. The Celebrant, preacher, readers, people making announcements, and so on, are each provided with a microphone, which allows their voices to be transmitted, but eliminates almost all the distracting background sounds.

The system at St. John's was provided as part of an upgrade of the Parish's conventional sound amplification system, partly at the urging of parishioner Anthony Garratt-Reed, who had experienced the benefits of hearing loops installed in churches (including Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral), while he was traveling in England a few years ago. It was paid for by donations from hearing-impaired members of the congregation and by funds from the parish budget.

The Rev. Willard S. Prater, a retired Episcopal priest who is a member of St. John's church, is enthusiastic in his praise of the system.

"It is the first time in 15 years," he said, "that I have been able to hear every word of the Rector's sermon!" Garratt-Reed comments that even though he knew what to expect, he is still amazed by the way the system allows him to hear the service.

Use of hearing loops as an assistive technology for the hearing-impaired is widespread in Europe, where such provision is required by legislation (which is enforced) in most countries, and where virtually all hearing aids are, by default, supplied with T-coils built-in. In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities act requires "reasonable" provision for those with physical impairments, and while adaptations such as handicapped access ramps are widely provided, the need for hearing assistance is less widely appreciated. Many cinemas use a technology based on FM radio, for which the user must ask for the loan of a receiver from the venue management — the Strand Theatre in Rockland and the Flagship Cinemas in Thomaston are examples. The new library building in Tenants Harbor, presently in the final stages of renovation, will have a loop system installed in the meeting room. However, until very recently, very few other locations have been equipped with any system at all. In fact most equipment for hearing loops, including that purchased by St. John's, continues to be imported from Europe, as there are no US-based manufacturers at present.

While the additional cost of a T-coil in a hearing aid is very small, few dispensing audiologists recommend its purchase — if it is mentioned at all, it is often with a lukewarm comment that it was originally designed to connect telephone handsets to the hearing aid, but with the advent of modern electronic phones with volume controls, most people don't use the T-coil much. Unfortunately though, the coil cannot be retro-fitted to a hearing aid if it was not ordered at the time of purchase.

Locally-based audio consultant and engineer Christian Dehlinger assisted St. John's with the installation of their system.

Everyone, especially including those with hearing-impairments, is cordially invited to worship and take part in the other activities at St. John's. The principal Sunday service of Holy Eucharist is at 10 a.m., and details of other services and activities can be found on the parish's website at stjohnthomaston.org.