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Hearing Loss Gets Personal at UW EAR

Story by
Nancy Joseph
September 2013Perspectives Newsletter
Jessica Sullivan

Assistant Professor and UW EAR director Jessica Sullivan (left) with participant Ruth Perman. Photo by Karen Harris. 

“The fabric of my life has been ever so enriched by each and every one of you.” A grey-haired gentleman is speaking during a sharing session at the close of UW EAR (Experience Auditory Rehabilitation), a conference for people with hearing loss and their communication partners. His voice cracks as he reaches for a tissue. “I haven’t used Kleenex in such a long while.”

It’s not often that a conference brings participants to tears. But UW EAR, organized by the UW Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences (SPHSC), is an intensely personal experience for all involved, including the graduate students paired with participants for the five-day event. The conference highlights a wide range of technological devices available for the hearing impaired and explores the impact of hearing loss on one’s closest relationships. Hearing impaired participants attend with their main communication partner, often a spouse.

“People with hearing loss often don’t realize how it impacts other areas of their relationship,” says Jessica Sullivan, assistant professor of speech and hearing sciences and director of UW EAR. “The person with hearing loss is already frustrated, so the partner may stay quiet about it or it may lead to bickering. It’s just difficult. During our sessions, a lot of stuff comes up.”

Sullivan introduced UW EAR in 2012, inspired by a similar offering at University of Texas-Dallas, where she earned her doctorate. While the conference provides a much-needed service for the community, it also serves as a potent learning experience for the audiology graduate students who staff the event after completing their first year of graduate training.

Restaurant field trip

During a restaurant field trip, graduate student Jordan Rock (right) works with Clemmie McCormick to sync her FM receiver to his transmitter as Clemmie's husband Chris looks on. The technology will improve her ability to hear Jordan in the noisy restaurant.  Media credit: Jessica Sullivan

“Students have told me that this experience made the whole first year of graduate school make more sense to them,” says Sullivan. “Spending a week working closely with a couple builds the students’ confidence as clinicians and helps them develop empathy and listening skills. It gives them that boost before they are sent out to off-site placements.”

Each day opens with an overview lecture on topics ranging from cochlear implants to coping skills, followed by hearing tests and hearing aid fittings. Sessions on the psychological aspects of hearing loss, led by SPHSC adjunct professor and counselor Jackie Metzger, round out the morning.  In the afternoon, hearing impaired participants attend auditory training sessions to master assistive technologies while their partners attend a supporters strategy class.

“It would have taken me, on my own, over a year to come close to understanding all the resources that are available,” commented one UW EAR participant at the end of the week. “The knowledge of the students just blew me away.  But even more than the technical skills and knowledge was the compassion—it was overwhelming.”

"The knowledge of the students just blew me away. But even more than the technical skills and knowledge was the compassion—it was overwhelming."

“Overwhelming” describes the experience for the graduate students as well. Although they work with patients in the Speech and Hearing Clinic during the academic year under close faculty supervision, UW EAR’s extended interactions represent a huge learning curve.  Jessica King, who participated in UW EAR first as a graduate student and then as a student mentor, welcomed the opportunity to work with a couple over an extended period. “It was a very special experience,” she recalls. “It was rewarding to find out where they were in their journey of coping with the presence of hearing loss in their home, and to see how the information and technology we provided them during the week helped to enhance their ability to understand and effectively communicate with each other and others.”

King found the spouse’s role as supporter and frequent translator to be one of the most eye-opening aspects of the conference. Observing the toll that hearing loss has on partners of the hearing impaired, she developed a supporters strategy class for UW EAR’s second year.  “I realized that spouses could benefit from a course designed just for them, to really understand and appreciate their role in dealing with a hearing loss in the home and also shed light on aspects of communication breakdown that aren’t necessarily their responsibility or burden to carry,” she explains.  

Graduate Student with participant

Graduate student Cornetta Mosely (right) and participant Ann Rodgers prepare to connect Ann's cochlear Implant to an FM receiver. The technology will enable Ann to listen to music for the first time since receiving the implant. Media credit: Jessica Sullivan

Spouses welcomed the opportunity to compare notes and brainstorm. King knew she was on to something when she overheard one tell another that the class was her favorite part of the day.  “If any one of these spouses felt like they took something valuable away from this course, then I can certainly say that I am pleased with how it went,” says King.

Technology also plays a major role in UW EAR. Hearing impaired participants try various hearing aids, as well as wireless remote microphones (frequency modulated, or FM, systems) that boost the ability to hear in challenging environments and on the telephone. They even take some of the devices for a test run during lunch at a noisy restaurant and in an art class where instructions must be closely followed.  SPHSC students are on hand to make adjustments to the assistive devices and research other options suited to a couple’s specific needs.

“In clinic, we see patients for 30 to 60 minutes and we only provide one or two services,” says SPHSC student Kristen Birch.  “It was great to be able to provide so many services—information about hearing loss, communication strategies, audiometric testing and hearing aid fittings, and aural rehabilitation—and to see how they are all interconnected.”

UW EAR has been affordable thanks to support from Med El Corp, Oticon, and other companies. But to expand the program and reach more couples, SPHSC hopes to identify a major sponsor.  Participants’ glowing thanks at the end of the conference are ample evidence of the program’s value.

At the final sharing session, one husband described his wife chatting with their granddaughter via cellphone using technology introduced during UW EAR.  It was the first time the doting grandparent had been able to hear her granddaughter clearly by phone. Emotion in his voice, the husband concluded, “If that was the only thing we picked up during UW EAR—and of course it wasn’t—that alone would have made the week worth it.”

Interested in learning more about UW EAR or attending the 2014 conference? Contact Jessica Sullivan at sulli10@uw.edu or (206) 616-5273 to be added to the mailing list.