It is estimated that two to three of every 1,000 children in the United States are born with some degree of hearing loss and that more will acquire hearing loss later in childhood, according to the National Institutes of Health. The passage of the Newborn and Infant Hearing Screening Act of 1999 and the adoption of universal newborn hearing screenings in many states, in conjunction with early-intervention services, changed lives and outcomes for many children.
Today, those born in the late 1990s through the early 2000s are reaching toward new educational and career aspirations. Not surprisingly, many children who were identified with hearing loss and received audiological assistance in their early years are now pursuing a career in audiology.
Meet the Students
Eight students with hearing loss are part of the first- and second-year cohort currently studying at Salus University to become doctors of audiology. I am one of them.
Unlike many of our classmates, some of us were driven toward this field from a very early age, knowing this profession to be our calling. We have personally benefited as patients from technological advances in audiology and are hopeful that these experiences can be applied to our professional life as well.
At a time where we focus so much on what will happen in the future, it is often important to look back and admire how much audiology has advanced and, above all, improved the quality of life for many. I have the privilege of sharing some personal stories from student audiologists with you here. Through this information, we hope to increase our personal connections with patients and strengthen relationships with our current and future colleagues.
Born and raised in Sayville, New York, Meghan W. contracted pneumococcal meningitis at the age of 18 months. As a lifesaving agent, extremely ototoxic gentamicin was administered. As a result, Meghan was left with a profound bilateral hearing impairment. She received a cochlear implant at the age of two and was enrolled in intensive speech therapy while studying in mainstream classrooms.
Like many other school-aged children, Meghan found hobbies to enjoy. For her—and for many of us—these hobbies help us to forget about the hardships we are encountering.
Meghan rowed for her crew team in high school. At the time, she was wearing the Freedom by Cochlear processor. This was the first processor that was water resistant, but it was not waterproof. Meghan had to be careful on the water, due to sudden splashes by the oars or the chance that the boat could flip. If that happened, those processors were done. While Meghan understood the risks, she—and her parents—did not let them stop her from rowing.
Now flash forward to 2019. All three cochlear implant manufacturers offer waterproof options for the external processor that can be worn in water, enabling individuals to enjoy swimming in a pool, taking part in water sports, or enjoying the ocean.
For Meghan, it has been amazing to see how much technology has advanced throughout her hearing journey. She remembers being so excited to join her friends in running through sprinklers with the Cochlear Freedom processor. Today, children and adults can enjoy all types of water activities without fear of device failure.
This is what eventually led Meghan to decide that audiology was her future. Initially, at SUNY Cortland, she was an elementary education major, but something did not seem right. After switching to the study of speech pathology and enjoying the sciences related to the field, she was reintroduced to audiology, which felt like the right fit.
Meghan is part of the Salus class of 2022, where six students out of 32 are living with hearing impairment. She hopes to see more advances in audiological technology for people in the workforce and better workplace accommodations in the future. Currently, there is a demand to find better stethoscopes for nurses and medical doctors who wear hearing aids or cochlear implants. Meghan hopes to help find better solutions for all working people, especially young workers.
At first, Rebecca S. from Seekonk, Massachusetts, was not believed to have hearing loss. Due to her mother’s persistence, however, she eventually was diagnosed at Boston Children’s Hospital with a bilateral hearing loss and fitted with hearing aids when she was 18 months old.
As early as fifth grade, Rebecca knew that audiology was meant for her. When she received her third set of hearing aids at the age of 10, she heard the /sh/ sound for the first time in the word distinguished and, overwhelmed with happiness, she started to cry.
For 10 years, she had never known the phonetic cue that lies so heavily in the higher frequencies even existed. Thanks to ongoing improvements in technology, specifically frequency lowering, Rebecca was able to experience a simple sound that gave so much meaning. Eventually, she shadowed her audiologist at work and saw reactions in patients that reminded her of her own experiences. Audiology as a career choice was solidified for her at those moments.
Rebecca currently wears Oticon’s Opn 2, which offers the ability to connect to her iPhone. It helped her hear music and phone calls clearly for the first time and with increased ease. She hopes to help others experience the benefits of hearing technology, just as she has.
Suffering from chronic ear infections as a child, Chantal S. endured multiple surgeries in early childhood, including a mastoidectomy, during attempts to reconstruct her eardrum. She had little improvement in hearing after these surgeries and, by age 15, had a moderately severe conductive hearing loss in the left ear.
After having been able to “get by” in school, she was fit with hearing amplification at age 17. She had been using her right ear to hear, as her brain had learned to compensate for the hearing loss on the left side. She often became fatigued, however, and had decided to look for a better solution after deciding to pursue higher education.
Chantal realized how much she really was missing when she was finally fit with a hearing aid. The moment her hearing aid was turned on and she heard that jingle, all sounds were so much louder. Hearing the water running, or car tires driving on the road, or the true quality of people’s voices were new experiences for Chantal—at the age of 17.
Now as an AuD student, Chantal appreciates what her patients are experiencing during their first fittings and empathizes with their initial perceptions. That is what originally drove her to choose the profession of audiology—and she enjoys all of the hands-on clinic experience. She has no doubt the profession is bound for even greater things in the future, in terms of technology advancements, and she is happy to be a part of the journey.
Similar to Rebecca’s story, in Ashley Z.’s infancy, there was no suspected hearing loss. However, Ashley’s mother was persistent, and Ashley was diagnosed with a profound hearing loss and received an implant by age two. She currently wears Cochlear’s Nucleus 6 system and, like her student colleagues, is continually impressed with, and has benefited from, the strides audiological technology has made over the years.
Ashley was even able to play the trumpet, which she studied for four or five years, which is impressive. Often with cochlear implants, musical appreciation is limited, as acoustic nuances are sometimes lost with electrical stimulation. It was difficult for Ashley to detect the differences in sharps and flats. She also had to be very careful with playing the right notes and staying in key.
Ashley’s dedication to little details and her motivation led her to play soccer at Eastern University while juggling academics. Originally set on a major in physical therapy, and then on psychology, Ashley did not feel like either were her true calling. One day, she realized her true passion had been right in front of her for her entire life. Audiology was something that felt right immediately.
Ashley looks forward to patient care and relating to her patients, especially in pediatrics. She hopes that, while working with parents of children with severe hearing loss, they will see her success with her cochlear implant and they will feel reassured that their child is going to be okay. Ashley hopes to spread more awareness of what cochlear implantation can do, focusing on outcomes and technology.
Saahi K., from Ontario, Canada, was born with normal hearing. Growing up, her hearing remained normal until she was about 14 years old, when she was diagnosed with a severe-to-profound hearing loss in the right ear and a mild hearing loss in the left ear. Saahi was fitted with hearing aids and received benefit from amplification.
While attending the University of Guelph in Ontario, Saahi was playing badminton with her friends one night during her freshman year. Suddenly, the hearing loss in her left ear went from mild to profound within hours. She was rushed to the ER with the hope that steroidal injections would alleviate the fast-changing hearing loss. Her hearing did not improve. Saahi was put on a high-priority list for a cochlear implant and eventually underwent surgery at the age of 19. Today, she wears Cochlear’s N6 in the left ear and Phonak’s Naida BTE in the right ear.
Saahi’s hearing journey always kept her involved in the audiology community. She became a mentor for Cochlear America during her undergraduate studies, mentoring future cochlear implant recipients and volunteering to educate people in local chapter meetings in Canada.
Saahi decided to pursue a career in audiology after six years of going to various audiologists and clinical professionals. She figured it was about time she saw herself sitting in one of the audiologist’s chairs and being the
one who provides the counseling to those afraid to undergo cochlear implantation or try amplification. She believes her experiences will help her empathize with her own patients.
She is personally very grateful for the Cochlear Phone Clip that wirelessly connects to her phone, enabling her to answer calls hands-free and listen to music. She uses the Cochlear Mini-Microphone and Roger Pen, which relay the real-time voice of her professors straight into her ears. Saahi hopes that she can truly educate others on the benefits of hearing aids, cochlear implants, and all assistive technologies and innovations.
As for myself, the only cochlear implant wearer in the class of 2021, it is great to see a number of doctorate students who are deaf/hard of hearing choosing audiology as a profession. Unlike some of my younger colleagues, who were identified and received audiological intervention early on, I did not receive a cochlear implant until I was seven years old.
My hearing journey has come a long way. I started out with a body-worn cochlear implant, wearing colorful fanny packs to school to hold the processor in place. Fortunately, my mother ordered many colorful, patterned designs to make my fanny packs cute and fun to wear.
I have always been an active person who loves to play sports and run around. I was ashamed to have to wear a fanny pack to hold the processor, with a long coil running up my back to my external earpiece and magnet. And I always had to be cautious, due to the expensive piece of equipment attached to my upper torso.
Now, at age 24, I have a new Nucleus 7s that I just got in May of 2019. I am amazed at what I can do with this technology. I am able to access my N7s through an app, adjust the volume, switch among different programs, and even stream music into my cochlear implants, without anyone ever noticing something out of the ordinary.
I will never forget the joy I felt walking the streets of New York City, truly enjoying my streamed music, with nothing on my head except my cochlear implants and my new black Ray Bans. It was great to be able to pick up phone calls hands-free and have the binaural advantage, while my peers whose hearing was within normal limits only can use one ear for the phone.
I can’t wait to go out on weekends and not struggle to use the phone, even in noisy settings. I know it sounds so simple, but to me and many others with hearing loss, this freedom and return to normalcy means so much.
I am happy that universities are accepting students who understand hearing loss and want to work in this rewarding profession because we know we can take our own experience and pay it forward.
On the Job
I know many people wonder what the day-to-day clinical tasks, such as diagnostic testing and hearing aid checks, are like for those of us with hearing impairments. Fortunately, we are not the first hearing-impaired audiologists and we have a growing network of mentors in the field who help us learn how to provide care using best practices with accommodations specific to our needs.
For me, memorizing word lists and using the monitor speaker on the audiometer has worked so far. I am able to perform listening checks via a modified listening scope. We can also incorporate apps with speech-to-text in the diagnostic exam, as a closed-captioning of sorts. I am hopeful and curious to see what technology has in store for us as clinicians.
Thank You, Audiologists!
In conclusion, and on behalf of my fellow AuD students with hearing impairment, I would like to thank all of the audiologists who advocated on our behalf as children with hearing loss. I look forward to working side by side with you and continuing to advocate for my future patients
and for myself as a young professional. From my unique perspective, audiology has come a long way in a short period of time—and will continue to evolve in the decades to come.
The author would like to thank her fellow students who consented to share their stories in this article.