Aid for People With Hearing Loss An audiologist creates free hearing aid programs from Nebraska to Nicaragua. In the Limelight
In the Limelight  |   June 01, 2017
Aid for People With Hearing Loss
Author Notes
  • Shelley D. Hutchins is content editor/producer for The ASHA Leader.
    Shelley D. Hutchins is content editor/producer for The ASHA Leader.×
Article Information
Hearing Disorders / Hearing Aids, Cochlear Implants & Assistive Technology / International & Global / In the Limelight
In the Limelight   |   June 01, 2017
Aid for People With Hearing Loss
The ASHA Leader, June 2017, Vol. 22, 30-31. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.22062017.30
The ASHA Leader, June 2017, Vol. 22, 30-31. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.22062017.30
Name: Stacie Ray, AuD, CCC-A
Title: Associate professor of practice in audiology, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Hometown: Lincoln, Nebraska
Night after night, Stacie Ray lay awake trying to figure out how to pay for her 17-month-old son’s hearing aids. She and her husband were both still in school, and the little savings they had were far short of the needed $4,000. They had to take out a loan to cover the cost.
Helping her son navigate life with hearing loss led Ray to become an audiologist. It was those sleepless nights, however, that have ultimately pushed her to provide hundreds of people with free or low-cost hearing aids. In 2007, Ray partnered with her employer—the University of Nebraska-Lincoln—and the Nebraska Early Hearing Detection and Intervention program to launch HearU Nebraska (formerly called the Nebraska Children’s Hearing Aid Bank). Ray set up the program within the University of Nebraska Foundation, so university donors can earmark contributions for HearU.
HearU provides free hearing aids to children 18 years and younger. Funded through private donations and grants, HearU has, Ray notes, never turned down a qualified family—eligible if they receive no insurance reimbursement for the devices. The organization strives to send the devices within 48 hours of receiving an application.
Ray negotiates with three different hearing aid manufacturers to buy products in bulk for the most reasonable price possible. Keeping a stock of devices allows the organization to respond quickly. And Ray set up the program so families can visit any licensed audiologist in Nebraska. She was determined not to limit access to the program in any way.
“Any audiologist who accepts a HearU patient gets a reimbursement commensurate with the Medicaid rate for the state of Nebraska,” Ray says. “Then we send hearing aids, care kits, ear molds and batteries for a year to the provider.”
Expanding aid
A few years after HearU was up and running, Ray began working with the Nebraska Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing to administer two more hearing aid banks. The Lions Hearing Aid Bank serves people with hearing loss ages 19 through 64 and Sertoma Hearing Aid Bank helps people 65 and older. But then Ray started losing sleep again when she learned about children in another country without access to hearing assistive devices.
“Someone told me there was this great need,” Rays says referring to an audiology client who talked about her work starting a school for the deaf in Nicaragua. “There were children who couldn’t even get a hearing test, let alone get treated.”
With the help of friend and colleague Hannah Ditmars—assistant professor of practice in audiology—and four graduate students, Ray traveled to Nicaragua last summer and launched HearU International. A university seed grant funded travel and, as with her other programs, Ray researched, planned and found support before committing. She found, for example, that the organization could buy extremely low-cost devices through the International Hearing Aid Purchasing Program.
Ray and Ditmars first visited Nicaragua two years ago to conduct a needs assessment. They also determined and implemented a way to sustain patient services after they left: They trained local Nicaraguans to maintain the devices and send patients’ questions to them via an interpreter.
“Sustainability is my number-one priority,” Ray says, “so when we leave, patients have someone to go to.”
Building sustainability
During last summer’s visit, Ray focused services in three regions—Jinotega, León and Quezalguaque. In Jinotega—a mountainous area known for its coffee production—Ray found another organization that operated a hearing clinic in the area. Mayflower Medical Outreach is an Oklahoma City-based nonprofit bringing audiologists, otolaryngologists and nurses from all over the U.S. to Nicaragua. This group trains Nicaraguans as audiology technicians, so Ray, Ditmars and their students worked alongside these technicians and helped increase their reach.
León—the town where Ray’s patient helped start the School for the Deaf—has around 220,000 people and is surrounded by poor communities. Here the group worked primarily with students at the school, fitting them with assistive devices and training staff. Ray hopes to be instrumental in opening an actual brick-and-mortar clinic here someday. Not far from León sits the small community of Quezalguaque. To Ray’s knowledge, this town had never received hearing health care before her group visited. Ray and her team provided services to nearly 200 people during their 10 days in the country.
Ray plans to return this summer to continue building sustainable programs. In addition to serving people with hearing loss and providing audiology students with clinical experience—as well as cultural competency—Ray hopes to start an audiology education program in the country. With backing from their university, she and Ditmars have started conversations with administrators at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua on how to achieve this goal.
In the 27 years since Ray first had a sleepless night over unaffordable hearing aids, she’s provided hundreds of people with a solution. In the last year alone, her programs have provided more than 600 hearing aids to more than 400 people, ranging in age from 1 month to nearly 100 years. Not only does she serve her home state and now Nicaraguan communities, Ray also travels around the U.S. showing others how to create comparable programs.
She remains frustrated at insurance companies for not covering hearing aids—especially those denying coverage for children. But rather than complaining, Ray continues to spread solutions.
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June 2017
Volume 22, Issue 6