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Lend An Ear: A Columbus Nonprofit Will Recycle Hearing Aids For Kids In Need

Eleven-year-old Eden Bradley relied on a hearing aid as a kid. She says she always struggled with how to describe it to her peers.

“It was hard because I didn't know when people asked about it, how to tell them, really," Eden says. "So I'd always wear my hair down so I didn't really have to run into that and go through the whole explaining process.”

Especially while she was young, it was critical for Eden to keep them on. Children hear differently than adults, says Columbus Speech and Hearing audiologist Ann Wheat.

“A child's brain when they're born essentially has no experience with speech and language,” Wheat says. “The time from birth to 3 is really critical for a child to develop spoken language.”

That’s why audiologists want to detect hearing impairment as early as possible, so kids can get aids that will help them learn.

“Their brain hasn't learned to filter out all the speech from noise,” Wheat says.

But the devices are not cheap, running up to $6,000.

“Hearing aids are expensive, and unfortunately a lot of private insurers do not provide any coverage,” Wheat says. “Some states actually mandate that private insurance cover hearing aids for children. Ohio is not one of those.”

And because kids grow so quickly, they must be tested every six months and be prepared to get new hearing aids at least once every five years. For many families, that's a heavy burden to bear.

Credit Adora Namigadde
Eden and Susan Bradley started Ears On, a nonprofit that plans to recycle hearing aids to kids who can't afford them.

Eden ended up being one of the kids who simply grew out of their need. 

“The hearing aid sat in a drawer, basically, and we were spring cleaning and we found the hearing aid,” says Eden’s mother Susan Bradley. “And she said, 'What an expensive piece of equipment that's sitting there just wasting.’”

It wouldn’t be wasting for long. Eden and her mother realized they could turn this into a non-profit: Ears On, which collects hearing aids that kids no longer need and finds them a new home.

In March, Susan and Eden entered the “GiveBackHack,” a social enterprise competition where people in Columbus presented ideas for projects that would impact the city.

“That's what Ears On wants to do – take your donated hearing aids, have them reset to factory setting and give them to audiologists who can distribute to people in need,” Susan says.

The mother-daughter duo ended up winning the hackathon. They got $5,000 dollars to get the project off the ground.

But they still face a lot of challenges. The expensive computer part of hearing aids can be recycled, but the mold, which actually holds it in the ear, has to be custom-made.

Not to mention, kids can be rough on the devices. Wheat says she's seen kids throw aids out the car window.

Credit Adora Namigadde
Audiologist Ann Wheat says it's important to catch hearing loss in children early, but that kids may need to change aids every six months.

The Bradleys are still working with Columbus Speech and Hearing on getting the nonprofit off the ground. One obstacle they’ve already considered: Hearing aids can't be directly given to families because they're medical equipment.

“We would donate them hopefully to Columbus Speech and Hearing and loaner banks, Nationwide Children's Hospital, OSU,” Susan says. “Those are the big three pediatric audiology centers around here.”

Hearing devices would be collected through dropboxes set up at those locations, as well as through mail. The Bradleys plan to send them to a lab to be restored to factory settings. From there, local audiologists would be able to fine-tune hearing aids to fit the hearing needs of specific children. 

And for kids like Eden, Ears On hopes to provide a toolkit to explain to friends and classmates what hearing aids are. In fact, Eden and her mother want to write entire books about the social impact of hearing loss.

When they do, they’ll have good credentials: Ears On is now a nonprofit recognized by the state and awaiting 501c3 status.

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.