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June 15, 2003

Program fills void in hearing aid fitting

From: Arkansas Democrat Gazette, AR - Jun 15, 2003


Tanya Sulfridge was 44, newly divorced and in need of an education when she flipped through a course catalog from Arkansas State University-Mountain Home.

The Mountain Home mom had considered teaching or nursing, but with a teenage daughter to support she wanted to begin working as soon as possible. The hearing healthcare program caught her eye.

Since it was a two-year program, she could begin working much sooner than in most other careers. "As soon as I started the classes, I just realized there was so much about the hearing impaired that I'd never understood, never even thought of," she said. "The loss of hearing affects them emotionally and socially, just really disrupts their world."

Sulfridge was one of four students in the program's first graduating class in May. The program, only the second in the country, was born out of a need for more people who are trained to fit hearing aids.

LeAnn Jackson, the program's instructor, said the number of licensed hearing instrument dispensers has fallen in Arkansas in recent years. A few years ago, the hearing society and licensing board began requiring licensees to have completed two years of college. Even though the students met the educational requirement, many still didn't know enough about the field to pass the test.

Practitioners in the field, like Jackson and Whitaker, decided the state needed a training program. "The number of hearing impaired people is obviously growing because the baby boomers are getting older, people are living longer and people are starting to realize the importance of hearing," Jackson said. "The number of people in the field who could actually take care of those people was diminishing."

According to the National Institute for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, about 28 million Americans are deaf or have hearing loss. The institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, also esti- mates that hearing loss affects a third of people over 60 and half of those over 85.

Arkansas has 84 licensed hearing aid dispensers, said Scott Whitaker, commissioner of the Arkansas Board of Hearing Instrument Dispensers, the state licensing organization. In the mid-1990s, that number was more than 100. "There aren't enough dispensers to keep up with the market," he said. "Most states have been falling backward."

ASU-Mountain Home was chosen because the campus is devoted exclusively to health-related degrees.

The school's administrators also lobbied to have it there, Whitaker said. Whitaker said he knew of only one similar program in the country, at Spokane Falls Community College in Washington.

The Mountain Home program began accepting students in August 2001. Students take courses in anatomy, psychology and business management, in addition to learning how to fit hearing aids.

All of the recent graduates received multiple job offers, Jackson said. Starting salaries run from $28,000 to $38,000 a year, working in clinics or hearing aid centers, she said.

To reach out to students who don't live near Mountain Home in Baxter County, the school plans to start an online degree program this fall. The program already has attracted interest from potential students from other states. "We're hoping to get students from all over the country," Pearson said.

Jackson, a Beebe resident, said the industry has become tougher because the field has become more technical.

The latest hearing aids use digital technology and function more like real ears.

People who wore older models of hearing aids complained they often heard too much background noise, but the new models are better able to filter that out, Jackson said. "Hearing aids do work," Jackson said. "There are lots of people even in the medical profession who say hearing aids don't work. That's just not true anymore."

Without the devices, people with a hearing loss often are perceived as senile or dumb, Jackson said. "Everything from people's relationships to their sex lives improves when they have a hearing aid," she said.

© 2003 Arkansas Democrat Gazette