Nebraska audiology programs amplify life for deaf and hard-of-hearing
03 Nov 2022 By Kateri Hartman, University Communication and Marketing
When Jeremy Lachance heard that his 13-year-old daughter needed new hearing aids, he wasn’t sure how he’d pay for it.
That’s where HearU Nebraska, a University of Nebraska–Lincoln led hearing aid bank for children, came in.
“It’s been a blessing,” Lachance said. “It’s a night and day difference. I’m a single parent, so money’s always kind of tight. Like last year, I had a heart attack at the beginning of summer and a few months later, we got the news that it was time for some new hearing aids. And that’s where the HearU program really came in handy. That really helped when I was already down.”
HearU Nebraska is one of three hearing aid banks serving deaf and hard of hearing Nebraskans. Run by the audiology program in the College of Education and Human Sciences, the hearing aid banks provide vital, statewide access to hearing aids for those who would otherwise be unable to afford them. The university also runs the state’s only Doctor of Audiology program, and its students gain hands-on training through the banks. More than 10,000 Nebraskans (and counting) have received life-changing hearing aids through the work of the university’s audiologists and partners who dispense the devices since the first hearing aid bank began in 1981.
“With the hearing aid banks, individuals don’t have to make that decision between affording hearing aids or keeping the lights on in their house or putting food on the table,” said Stacie Ray, audiologist and director of the hearing aid banks. “Some individuals would not be able to move forward with amplification without the Nebraska Hearing Aid Banks.”
Nebraska is the only state with hearing aid banks that serve people across their lifespan, Ray said. The banks dispense hearing aids at Barkley Memorial Center and other partner locations statewide. The assistance program is divided into three age groups:
HearU Nebraska, which provides new hearing aids to children ages 0-18, with priority to newly identified children ages 0-3. This program is funded through grants, and private donations to the HearU Nebraska Fund held at the University of Nebraska Foundation.
Lions Hearing Aid Bank, which provides refurbished hearing aids to individuals 19-64 years of age. This program is supported by the Nebraska Lions Foundation.
Sertoma Hearing Aid Bank, which provides one refurbished hearing aid to individuals 65 and older, and a second hearing aid for only $100. This program is supported by the Sertoma Clubs of Nebraska.
Assistance is based on income, and applications for HearU are reviewed at Barkley Memorial Center, the home of the university’s audiology program. The Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing receives applications for the Lions and Sertoma hearing aid banks and works in partnership with the university. The hearing aid banks accept donations of hearing aids in all conditions, and those interested in donating can contact the banks for more information.
While the services are based on financial criteria, unique situations may warrant exceptions.
“We’ve had to make quite a few exceptions recently because inflation is just so high,” Ray said. “We have people that it looks like they may have the resources but maybe the spouse and the individual with the hearing loss are both going through health care issues. For example if one has cancer and one has diabetes their expenses just for their medication can be over $1,000 a month.
“It may look like they have good financial resources monthly, but it doesn’t stretch enough to be able to afford something like a pair of hearing aids. We’re seeing that more and more.”
Ray experienced the financial burden of hearing aids herself when her son was diagnosed with hearing problems at the age of 17 months. She had to take out a loan for a set of hearing aids and pay it back with interest over several years. Ray, a professor of practice in the Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders, founded HearU in 2007.
“I knew there had to be a better way,” Ray said. “We started HearU to lessen the emotional and financial burden on families with deaf and hard of hearing children.”
HearU has dispensed over 900 hearing aids to children across the state since its inception, which includes Lachance’s daughter, Chloie.
Chloie was born prematurely, which affected her inner ear development and led to her hard of hearing diagnosis. Being connected to HearU Nebraska provided the Lachance family with the assistance needed to get hearing aids early on in Chloie’s life. Today, she is on her third set of hearing aids from the program.
HearU also allows children to customize the color and designs on their hearing aids and earmolds. For her current set, Chloie chose pink hearing aid and purple earmolds with a blue heart.
HearU has given Chloie more freedom to participate in school and communicate more freely with her friends and family. She currently enjoys school, especially math, science, and ukulele club.
“One thing we really like about the hearing aids is that at LPS the teachers wear microphones that go to classroom speakers and directly to the hearing aid,” Lachance said. “It’s awesome, and it helps cut out background noise.”
Hearing difficulties impact not only individuals, but also their families and society. “Fortunately, those Nebraskans who cannot access amplification due to a lack of financial resources have someplace to turn, and our students who are attending the only Doctor of Audiology program in the state are provided unique opportunities to work with this population” states Ray.
“Everybody has someone in their family who is impacted by a deaf or hard of hearing diagnosis,” Ray said. “It’s a huge risk factor if left untreated. Adults may struggle at work and children with untreated hearing difficulties can cost society up to a million dollars over the course of their life span.”
Research shows that those with untreated hearing difficulties are at higher risk of dementia, loneliness and more, and the problem is growing. According to the World Health Organization, there are currently 466 million people with disabling levels of hearing, with an estimated 700 million by 2050. Accounting for all levels of hearing differences, globally there are approximately 1.5 billion affected.
The Hearing Aid Banks and statewide partners are working hard to combat these problems. Some 40 offices from Omaha to Scottsbluff dispense hearing aids to adults, giving access to more than 200 providers. All pediatric hearing facilities are participants in HearU Nebraska.
“Shout out to all the providers out there who participate in the hearing aid banks, because typically they do it at a reduced cost,” Ray said. “The providers across the state are the critical component. We have amazing hearing healthcare providers in our state that are willing to participate in this statewide program. Without them, we wouldn’t have a program.”
Access to services like these is crucial, and the earlier a hearing difficulty is found in a child, the earlier they are able to access treatment.
“Hard of hearing children who are provided early intervention by the age of six months will likely advance at the same rate as their hearing peers,” Ray said.
The audiology program works closely with the state’s Early Hearing Detection and Intervention program to reach certain goals. The goal is to follow a 1-3-6 rule, which is to have infants screened by one month of age, diagnosed by three months, and beginning treatment by six months.
“Our numbers of children in Nebraska meeting that goal have been very, very high,” Ray said. “Since we’re so rural, the three-month diagnosis is difficult, but 99.4% of all babies are being screened for hearing difficulties before they leave the hospital.”
In an effort to increase the number of three-month diagnoses in rural Nebraska, remote evaluations are now offered. Hannah Ditmars, associate professor of practice in special education and communication disorders, partners with Sara Peterson, certified teacher of the deaf, to conduct the evaluations.
Due to a shortage of pediatric audiologists in greater Nebraska, Ditmars conducts the evaluations via telehealth, while Peterson sits in-person with families and serves as Ditmars’ hands.
Evaluations are done at sites run by Educational Service Units 13 and 16, which are located in Sidney, Scottsbluff, Chadron, North Platte and Ogallala.
“Being able to offer this program with somebody trained in pediatrics is a huge thing, because there typically aren’t many choices when you live in rural locations,” Peterson said.
From serving infants to the elderly, the university’s audiologists and statewide partners are dedicated to serving those in need.
“We meet people where they are,” Ray said. “I feel it’s necessary in the medical setting to find what you can do for those families and those individuals that need assistance. A lot of people don’t have accessibility, whether that is financially or where they’re located within the state, and we need to find answers.”
“The Nebraska Hearing Aid Banks to me are a solution for a lot of individuals who wouldn’t have access if they didn’t exist,” she said.
Special Education and Communication Disorders
College of Education and Human Sciences