Dr. Juliette Sterkens speaks about hearing loops in the Rotunda's Dome Room. The room was retrofitted with a hearing loop while the Rotunda was being renovated. Credit: Credit: Ryan Kelly, Daily Progress

The Rotunda at the University of Virginia is a sight to behold as it nears the end of a $50.6 million renovation. One key addition to the Rotunda, though isn’t easily seen, but some students and visitors attending lectures and meetings in the building will be able to hear it, loud and clear.

Four rooms in the Rotunda, including the spacious Dome Room, have been retrofitted with hearing loops. These systems convert sound captured by a microphone into electromagnetic waves, which can be picked up by the telecoils of hearing aids and cochlear implants.

Dr. Juliette Sterkens, a prominent advocate of hearing loops, spoke Tuesday morning about this technology in the Dome Room. The lecture was organized by the Sheila C. Johnson Center for Human Services at the Curry School of Education.

About 70 people attended, mostly UVa students, faculty and hearing professionals.

“[The hearing loop] is one of those technologies that sounds too good to be true, but it’s not,” Sterkens said. “It delivers.”

Sterkens, a retired audiologist from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, is the National Hearing Loop Advocate for the Hearing Loss Association of America. She said that she is part of a “grassroots movement” that is educating Americans about this technology to help them use their hearing aids to their full potential.

Sterkens previously founded the Loop Wisconsin initiative, which is responsible for more than 300 loop installations throughout her home state.

Sterkens explained that increasing public awareness of hearing loops — and posting signage to advertise their presence in a room — is as important as installing the technology itself. Hearing aid users can’t pick up the electromagnetic waves from the loop unless they know to turn on their telecoils.

Churches and other places of worship are among the leading users of hearing loops. People with hearing loss often struggle to understand sermons when sounds echo through large sanctuaries.

“The best hearing aids in the world cannot get rid of this reverberation [without hearing loops],” Sterkens said. “My patients complained that they went to funerals and couldn’t hear the eulogies. That is tragic.”

Hearing loops can solve this problem. Ten churches in Charlottesville already have installed them.

“People who don’t hear well don’t age well,” Sterkens added. “Their quality of life is not the same.”

One student asked Sterkens if hearing loops were being installed in elementary schools for the benefit of children with hearing disorders. Sterkens said at least one school in Wisconsin has a hearing loop in its cafetorium.

However, most schools tend to address hearing needs on an individual basis. Neither Albemarle County Public Schools and Charlottesville City Schools has purchased a hearing loop.

Dan Van Goidtsnoven, an engineer at Hearing Technologies, led a tour of the Rotunda’s looped rooms after the lecture. Two classrooms at ground level have hearing loops installed beneath the floor.

The loop in a second-floor conference room is located behind the walls. The one in the Dome Room hangs from the ceiling of the room’s circular alcove.

Van Goidtsnoven said the hearing loops in the Rotunda cost about $40,000. Loops for churches typically cost only $3,000 to $4,000. Small loops for home use can be purchased for $400 or less and can be installed without help from a technician.

Larry Herbert, a member of the Central Virginia chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America, helped arrange Sterkens’ appearance at UVa. Along with the hearing loops at the Rotunda and UVa’s Miller Center for Public Affairs, the chapter also lobbied successfully for closed captioning screens to display messages from the public address system at John Paul Jones Arena and Scott Stadium.

“I have a love-hate relationship with my hearing aids,” Herbert said. “But when it comes to hearing loops, I am deeply in love. They are fantastic.”


Josh Mandell

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.