CHICAGO — For about four years, the Rev. Christine Chakoian recalls hearing nothing but gibberish when members of her north suburban Presbyterian church rose to ask the congregation to pray for them on Sunday.
Cut off by a combination of the sanctuary's acoustics and a typical hearing aid that blurred sounds traveling a distance, Chakoian wouldn't know what to pray because she couldn't understand what was said from the pews.
The disconnect not only undermined Chakoian's connection to her congregation at First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest, Ill., but it weakened her relationship with God.
"In the Presbyterian church the word of God is the center of worship. If you can't hear the word, you're shut off from worship," she said. "You're there to be part of the community of faith. To not be able to participate in the community is worse than not being there at all."
That changed a year ago when the Lake Forest church adopted the equivalent of Wi-Fi for the hearing-impaired, otherwise known as a hearing loop.
"Now I'm part of all of worship, not just the things I happen to hear," Chakoian said. "I'm able to hear God in the quieter places as well as in the loud places now — in a child's prayer request, in a moment of prayerful silence. I can find God just as I've always found God in the happy noise of the organ and singing."
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires most facilities with 50 seats or more to provide assistive listening devices, but houses of worship are exempt from the 1990 federal mandate.
Even so, many churches are leading the charge to ensure equal access to words and information, particularly the word of God. In doing so, they have inspired a movement — prompting members to push theaters and other public spaces to better accommodate one of the most common but invisible disabilities affecting more than 36 million Americans.
By transmitting magnetic signals through a wire surrounding the audience to a hearing aid equipped with a telecoil, hearing loops deliver sound straight from the source and into the listener's head without the extraneous noise or the typical blurring of sound that many experience when they wear hearing aids.
All listeners have to do is flip a switch to turn on the telecoil, or receiver, inside their ear. Most hearing aids already include telecoils.
Linda Remensnyder, an audiologist who belongs to Chakoian's church, said common misconceptions about hearing aids and hearing loss have hampered the acceptance of looping in the U.S. for years.
For example, standard hearing aids, which capture sound using a microphone and then send an amplified version to an earpiece, work well in intimate settings.
But out in public, hearing aids are often not enough. FM devices with headphones accommodate mobile situations such as museums. Infrared devices work well in jury rooms because they offer confidentiality. But in public venues where speakers address crowds from a distance and spectators must contend with background noise, experts say looping is ideal.
"As we approach a tipping point where hearing loops become the accepted user-friendly assistive listening technology, we can take satisfaction in knowing that churches are leading the culture," said Dave Myers, a psychology professor at Hope College in Holland, Mich., and an advocate for the hearing-impaired like himself. "Churches are caring places, and churches have a lot of people with hearing loss, especially their older members, and they're responsive to that. A worship place is where people really must be able to hear to embrace the experience."
People who are hearing-impaired face different issues from those who are deaf. The deaf community has developed its own culture, sign language and modes of communication that don't involve using their ears or their voices. But the hearing-impaired do not have those advantages.
Many people who can hear don't understand that the nature of the disability is different.
Because hearing loss often mutes only a certain frequency or tone, many hearing-impaired spectators can hear the action on stage or screen but need assistance to make sense of it.
What's more, those with hearing loss struggle with their own expectations, which often form over a lifetime when they could still hear.