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January 2011
Hearing Success
By Heather Head

     Sometimes you don’t realize how much you miss something until you get it back again. Hearing can be that way, thanks to the gradual nature of most hearing loss. As a result, many adults postpone having their hearing checked until a spouse or co-worker insists.

     But according to Shannon Tucker, executive director at the Charlotte Speech and Hearing Center, even mild hearing loss can impact a person’s effectiveness, gradually undermining the ability to communicate and, as a result, their standing among colleagues and employees. Fortunately, the Charlotte Speech and Hearing Center can bring people literally back to their senses—or at least return their sense of hearing.

     “It’s hard enough,” says Tucker, “to be 55 or 60 and functioning at a high level in our fast-paced, 24/7 world. If your communication skills are not up to where they need to be, it will affect you one way or another. You really can’t afford to be communicating at less than 100 percent of your capability, even if it takes a little help.”

     And help is Charlotte Speech and Hearing’s mission. Starting with full-service, complete audiological evaluations and auditory processing tests, highly qualified staff can determine the presence and type of hearing loss, and the best way to address it.


Listening to Needs

     “Our staff is highly mission-driven,” adds Tucker. “They genuinely care about our clients and spend a lot of time really understanding their concerns and needs.”

     Even among adult clients, those needs vary widely. Some hearing loss occurs fairly evenly across the full spectrum of frequencies, while other hearing loss may affect only certain ranges. Additionally, client lifestyle affects their needs. Some business people may be concerned about functioning in a crowded environment such as a cocktail party, while others may be more concerned about their ability to hear the symphony or their grandchildren. Many need to be able to move effectively among environments.

     At the Charlotte Speech and Hearing Center, a certified audiologist and state-licensed hearing instrument specialists utilize the latest technological devices and programming to restore near-complete function in all capacities, with devices molded comfortably to the ear and designed to be practically undetectable by others.

     Hearing services for professional adults also include fluency support for stutterers, accent reduction assistance, and speech rehabilitation following an accident or stroke, which together represent only a small fraction of Charlotte Speech and Hearing’s capabilities. From industrial hearing protection and assessments, to hearing evaluation and speech therapy for children, the organization serves a broad segment of the population providing essential services that many conventional hearing aid providers can’t or don’t. Plus, their community service commitment ensures that these top notch services are available to anyone, regardless of ability to pay.

     Tucker says that early intervention among at-risk children represents a big part of their current mandate. Studies indicate that addressing hearing or speech disabilities by the age of 3 can save society several times the cost of treatment because a child who is ready for kindergarten is more likely to succeed in school and employment, and less likely to access social services or engage in crime as an adult.

     Charlotte Speech and Hearing’s Step Ahead program sends a therapist into low income daycares and preschools to provide free developmental screening and parent-teacher workshops for care providers of children ages 2 to 5. Then they help connect the children and their families with services and resources to improve hearing and stimulate language and literacy development at home and in the classroom.

     “It creates a ripple effect,” says Tucker. “If you teach three providers in one preschool in a struggling neighborhood to stimulate literacy and early language, and they have 20 kids in each classroom every year for five years, then you’ve reached 300 kids with early language and literacy stimulations that they otherwise would never have received.”

     The only non-profit, 501(c)3, free standing community speech and hearing center in North Carolina, Charlotte Speech and Hearing was created in 1967 by the Junior League to provide a school for the deaf. While that school is no longer necessary, thanks to expanded opportunities in public schools, the organization continues to connect people with critical speech and hearing services regardless of age or income.

     In its first year, the organization operated on a budget of $57,000 and had one employee. Now, its budget is $1.4 million and it has 15 employees serving over 2,000 children plus many more adults annually. The growth has resulted from the organization’s continual efforts to remain relevant to the community’s changing needs.

     In 1969, the United Way added the Charlotte Speech and Hearing Center to their fold and had, over the years, become their primary source of funding. However, United Way budget cuts in recent years have forced the organization to seek a more diverse funding base. Through marketing and fundraising efforts, they have successfully increased funding from grants, donations, foundations, and private clients from 68 to 75 percent of their income, with United Way funding at approximately 25 percent.

     “At one point they funded us at close to $600,000 between our allocation and grants” says Tucker. “This year, we only requested about $300,000. We’re pretty proud of that.”


Hearing Technology

     Charlotte Speech and Hearing is also justifiably proud of the high quality of services and equipment they’re able to provide. If you haven’t seen a hearing aid since the days of clunky manila-colored amplifiers, that’s because they’ve become rather difficult to see. Now, a hearing aid can weigh less than a quarter, fit unobtrusively in or behind the ear, and, for good measure, match the color of your skin or hair.

     But that’s only the beginning of improvements in speech and hearing technology since Charlotte Speech and Hearing’s inception in the 1960s. Prior to the advent of digital technology, hearing aids were essentially just small amplifiers piped directly into the ear canal. They amplified all sounds across all frequencies evenly, including the person across the table, the crowd behind, and the traffic on the street outside. As a result, users often had trouble communicating in crowded or busy environments, and experienced frequent discomfort.

     All of that changed with the advent of digital technology. Today’s hearing aids can be programmed to amplify only sounds in the specific ranges where the individual is having trouble hearing, and at customized levels for each range. Noise cancellation technology eliminates problems associated with sudden changes or ambient background noise. The highest end aids can even be programmed to meet lifestyle needs of the user, such as the ability to hear all the instruments in a symphony or clearly understand a high-pitched child’s voice.

     Furthermore, Bluetooth technology enables some hearing aids to communicate with MP3 players, televisions, and classroom communication devices to deliver sounds loud and clear to the user.

     While some of these technologies are prohibitively expensive for the organization’s free hearing aid banks, nevertheless it is a misconception to think that the services and equipment offered to low income families are used or second-rate.

     “We offer the same high-quality, digitally programmable, low profile hearing aids to our low-income free clients as we do to private clients,” says Tucker.

     In addition to exceptional and widely used improvements in hearing aids, technology has impacted many people with physical speech disabilities for whom communication has always presented a particularly frustrating challenge.

     Perhaps the most famous example of this is Stephen Hawking, whose brilliant mind may probe and elucidate the mysteries of time and space, but whose body prevents him producing coherent speech without assistance. Many children with that level of physical disability have until recently had access to only rudimentary communication channels, such as buttons on a device that communicates basic needs such as hunger or pain.

     Now, augmented communication technology has advanced to a level that permits any child with rudimentary motor control and cognitive function to use menus and intuitive interfaces to construct complete sentences and thoughts, enabling near-normal communication with anyone in their environment.

     “Therapists have trained children to use these devices and then taken them out in the community where they can use their device to have a real conversation with a real person in the outside world,” says Tucker. “That’s a really big breakthrough for that child.”


Community Impact

     The Charlotte Speech and Hearing Center serves a wide variety of clients, using revenue generated from private clients to help support their community programs.

     Tucker says that while clients appreciate the attention and care they provide, they also take satisfaction knowing that, by choosing the Center’s non-profit services, they are supporting the organization’s mission within the community at large.

     The Center provides free speech-language services to homeless families at Charlotte Emergency Housing, free hearing aids through the Hearing Services Bank (over 1,500 given away in the last decade), language and literacy programs at preschools in underserved neighborhoods, and a financial assistance fund to provide speech and language services to anyone in need in the community.

     Many otherwise financially self-sufficient families and individuals sometimes need help with speech and hearing expenses because of the unusual and problematic way that insurance companies and public services handle speech and hearing.

     For instance, Medicare, which provides medical insurance to individuals over the age of 65, does not cover hearing aids. At an age where a large percentage of the population begins needing hearing assistance, many people find they simply cannot afford the $6,000 hearing aid necessary to function effectively. As a result, this population represents a large proportion of Charlotte Speech and Hearing’s hearing services bank recipients.

     Medicaid, which provides medical insurance to extremely low- and no-income families, does cover some of the cost of hearing services, but at such a low rate that many private providers simply can’t afford to accept it.

     Even private health insurance often covers only a portion, if any, of the cost, leaving many middle-income families unable to afford their hearing aids or months of speech-language treatment. In these cases, the Charlotte Speech and Hearing Center steps in with a sliding scale fee to ensure no one is left without the assistance they need.


Relevance for the Future

     With 40 years of community service and outstanding private client care under their belts, the Charlotte Speech and Hearing Center has much to be proud of, but they aren’t stopping there. Tucker says they are currently working on a five-year plan that will help them to access additional grant and donor funds.

     “We want to continue to be relevant and impactful in the community,” says Tucker, “starting with how we access our funds and extending to how we reach our clients.”

     Some areas the organization wants to expand include hearing education and remediation for a growing population of teenagers experiencing early hearing loss, more early childhood intervention outreach, and attracting corporate and manufacturing clientele to their industrial hearing preservation services.

     On the business side, Tucker wants to see the organization continue to diversify its revenue base in order to increase its stability by attracting more private clientele, winning grants and foundational support, and gaining individual donors.

     Most of all, Tucker promises, they will stay true to their mission to connect people in need in the Charlotte community “with the sounds of life”—because everyone deserves the gift of communication.

Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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