Bellingham’s City Council Chambers is the first government facility in Whatcom County to install a hearing loop following renovations, although the council is hoping that the community can wait to try them out.
On Monday, March 15, city council spokeswoman Monea Kerr said that the council will continue meeting for the foreseeable future, but “as of now, we are only conducting essential business at our meetings, suggesting people stay home, and practicing social distancing,” while figuring out how Bellingham residents can participate remotely.
During its planned renovations, the city installed a hearing loop, a special sound system for people with hearing aids. A hearing loop creates a magnetic, wireless signal that amplifies the sound to hearing aids with telecoils.
The total cost for all the renovations is $85,000, $35,000 of which was dedicated to the installation of the hearing loop, Bellingham’s ADA coordinator Kim Brown said. Colacurio Brothers Construction is the contractor responsible for the main improvements and Avidex installed the hearing loop.
Former councilmember Don Gischer, who uses a hearing aid, tested the sound quality of the chamber’s newly installed hearing loop.
“For those people who have T-coils in their hearing aids, it’s probably the best sound that they will ever hear out of a microphone when someone else is speaking,” Gischer said. “It’s just so much of an improvement over regular hearing aids without T-coils because you don’t get the background noise.”
Gischer served on the Bellingham City Council through the ’80s and ’90s, and is a member of Hearing Loop NW, an nonprofit advocacy organization focused on installing hearing loops in the Pacific Northwest.
"Don is volunteering his time,” Brown wrote in an email. “It is considered best practice to have citizen volunteers (actual users) test hearing loop installations in addition to installers complying with standards."
Gischer said many locations and venues in the Seattle area have hearing loops, but very few facilities in Whatcom and Skagit Counties have them installed.
Brown said installing a hearing loop is something the city has been interested in doing for several years now, but the chambers are a difficult facility to loop because of their historic construction.
The city couldn’t install the hearing loop in the wall behind the wood paneling because the interior wood paneling is one of the historic features of the building. Instead, the hearing loop had to be installed under the carpeting, which meant removing all of the seating.
Because of the difficulty of ripping out the seating and carpeting, the city decided to wait until they were already planning on renovating the chambers to install the hearing loop, Brown said.
“We want to create a more inclusive community. We want people to be more involved in civic life, so this is a pretty big step,” Brown said.
In the few years Brown has been the ADA coordinator for the City of Bellingham, she has heard complaints about the assistive listening devices the city provides at public meetings.
Assistive listening devices are either headphones or earbuds the city provides that are linked with the room’s audio system. Users can request the devices from the city before meetings, but it isn’t a discreet process.
Brown said she has heard people say it is uncomfortable to admit they have hearing problems and request the devices. The devices also aren’t always efficient at eliminating background noise, making it difficult for users to hear, compared to the promises of loop technology.
“For the first time, they’re hearing everything that someone is saying and not just kind of intermittent pieces,” Brown said. “You can’t have an engaged community if people are not able to hear everything and participate.”
Brown said the problem of not having a hearing loop is ironically a silent issue because people don’t often think about how isolating it is to be hard of hearing or deaf.
“I’m very pleased the city is going to do it,” Gischer said.
Gischer said he and others have informally met with members of the Whatcom County Council to discuss the possibility of getting the county’s chambers and other locations looped as well.
Although not many places are currently looped, efforts have been made to expand the use of the hearing loop technology.
A few weeks ago, Gischer said he and others looped a large meeting room at the Bellingham Senior Center. A local audiologist and a couple of rooms at Western have also had hearing loops installed.
A couple of people are also working with the Mount Baker Theater, which may install a hearing loop, Gischer said. The theater already has plans to improve its sound system.
In addition to installing a hearing loop, the city also removed some seating from the council chamber to make more room for wheelchair users and their companions. The carpeting will be replaced, the interior will be repainted and a new clock will be installed.
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