Hearing Aids for Holocaust Survivors A social service agency, hearing aid manufacturer and university audiology program unite to restore hearing for seniors who otherwise have no access to hearing aids. Academic Edge
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Academic Edge  |   March 01, 2016
Hearing Aids for Holocaust Survivors
Author Notes
  • Carol Polovoy is managing editor of The ASHA Leader. cpolovoy@asha.org
    Carol Polovoy is managing editor of The ASHA Leader. cpolovoy@asha.org×
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Hearing & Speech Perception / Hearing Disorders / Hearing Aids, Cochlear Implants & Assistive Technology / Special Populations / Older Adults & Aging / Professional Issues & Training / Academic Edge
Academic Edge   |   March 01, 2016
Hearing Aids for Holocaust Survivors
The ASHA Leader, March 2016, Vol. 21, 34-35. doi:10.1044/leader.AE.21032016.34
The ASHA Leader, March 2016, Vol. 21, 34-35. doi:10.1044/leader.AE.21032016.34
Lisa Rickard, clinical assistant audiology professor at the University of Maryland, works with Neli Melman, the first recipient of hearing aids through the collaborative program for Holocaust survivors at the Jewish Social Service Agency.
They survived the worst horror in human history, faced prejudice and denigration in their native lands, and finally escaped to the United States. But they live in poverty and struggle with the language, in addition to facing the typical challenges of aging.
They are survivors of the Holocaust.
In the suburbs of Washington, D.C., a social service agency that helps these seniors has partnered with the University of Maryland’s Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences (HESP) to create a unique program that brings the survivors a life-changing gift—hearing aids.
The Holocaust Survivors Program at the Jewish Social Service Agency (JSSA) in Rockville, Maryland, receives funds from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, local donors and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington to support a caseload of 436 survivors. Eighty-four percent of them live near or below the poverty line, according to Ellen Blalock, program coordinator.
“Our funds are limited,” Blalock says. “We don’t have $4,000 per client to spend on hearing aids.”
The program had established highly successful partnerships to provide the survivors with dental and eye care. Blalock decided to try to use the model to provide hearing aid fittings and follow-up services.
Medicaid covers hearing tests for the survivors, Blalock explains, but not devices or follow-up care. JSSA appealed to hearing-aid manufacturer Sivantos, which agreed to donate 40 pairs of Siemens behind-the-ear, digital hearing aids to the program. But who was going to fit and fine-tune them?
Blalock was connected by staff from the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington to the nearest university with an audiology program—the University of Maryland at College Park. “Ellen emailed us to see if we could offer hearing aid services for Holocaust survivor clients,” explains Lisa Rickard, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences.

“Lisa and her students are so incredibly patient, calm and focused on the survivor’s needs. They cover everything, answer questions, and make sure the client understands what to do and is completely comfortable with the new devices. Lisa even found us a hearing-aid user guide written in Russian.”

Many months, planning sessions, emails and letters of agreement later, the first of Blalock’s Holocaust survivors received bilateral aids in October 2015. The 89-year-old widow lost most of her family in September 1941 in the Babi Yar massacre, the largest mass killing in the Soviet Union by the Nazi regime. After a career as a senior researcher at the Kiev Research Institute of Urology and Nephrology—where she published 11 books, manuals and monographs and more than 150 articles—she emigrated to the U.S. in 1989 as a refugee.
The process begins when a survivor with hearing loss visits an audiologist for a hearing test (covered by Medicaid) and receives a prescription for hearing aids. The client gives the prescription to his or her case manager, who gives it to Blalock, who then sends it to Rickard. Rickard orders the appropriate devices from Siemens.
Rickard and an audiology student travel about 15 miles to JSSA offices in Rockville on alternate Thursdays to fit hearing aids on two new clients. During the same visit, they follow up with two clients who received their aids at the previous visit. With program funds, Blalock provides a small stipend to HESP to help defray travel and other expenses associated with each client’s fitting and two follow-up visits.
Working with Holocaust survivors requires a special touch, Blalock explains, and she is grateful that Rickard and her students understand their unique needs. More than 80 percent of the survivors in the D.C.-area program spent their post-war years in the former Soviet Union. Most were highly educated professionals and all fled to the United States to escape Soviet anti-Semitism. Few speak English fluently.
“We have a Russian case manager translate during the appointments,” Blalock says. “Lisa and her students are so incredibly patient, calm and focused on the survivor’s needs. They cover everything, answer questions, and make sure the client understands what to do and is completely comfortable with the new devices. Lisa even found us a hearing-aid user guide written in Russian.”
HESP audiology students also benefit, Rickard says. “They have the opportunity to interact with this unique, vulnerable—yet incredibly courageous—population,” and also learn to work with an interpreter, she says.
The effect on survivors goes beyond regaining hearing, Blalock says. “Some of our survivors spent years living in societies and communities where the message they received was ‘You’re worthless.’ So they sometimes have trouble understanding why people care about them and invest in them.”
With their newly fitted devices, the survivors are able to hear more than they ever imagined they could, Blalock says. That, and the “dignity, kindness and compassion of the HESP team, create a magnificent gift.”
Rickard describes the project as inspiring, and recalls one of the first follow-up visits she had with a survivor. “I asked her if she was happy with her hearing aids,” she says. “She looked right at me and said, ‘You opened my world and gave me wings,’ while making a wing gesture with her hands.”
Blalock, who is in contact with directors of similar survivor programs in other metropolitan areas throughout the country, believes the hearing-aid partnership is unique for Holocaust survivors, and hopes others replicate it.
“There is no other way for survivors to access hearing aids,” she says, “because of the costs. But these hearing aids cost the survivors nothing, and costs us about 10 percent of the full cost.
“These are people who have had a difficult time in life,” Blalock says. “They’re aging, but those changes come with an overlay of a lifetime of suffering. They’ve experienced loss, despair and pain that few of us can imagine. And you should just see their faces when they put the hearing aids on for the first time.”
1 Comment
March 2, 2016
Lata Krishnan
Congratulations!
What a great program that benefits all the people involved!
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March 2016
Volume 21, Issue 3