The Healthy Hearing component of the Healthy Athletes program began almost 20 years ago, in 1999. It was initially started as a trial program in the United States, the brain child of Dr. Judy Montgomery, a speech-language pathologist and Dr. Gil Herer, an audiologist. Melina Willems, Global Clinical Advisor for the Special Olympics Healthy Hearing program, was one of the first people to sign up and she has been with the program ever since.
“At the European games in 2000 in the Netherlands, they had no volunteers so they contacted a different education program in audiology and found me in Belgium,” she says. “I went over there for a week with my students and I fell in love with the program and I’ve been there ever since.”
Initially the Healthy Hearing program’s function served mainly as a screening tool to diagnose hearing loss in athletes with intellectual disabilities. Over time, the program evolved, going beyond conducting initial screenings to include advocacy work and providing advice on the importance of hearing health.
Today, it’s not just athletes with intellectual disabilities that are benefiting from the program. Thanks to the support and work of the volunteers and medical professionals, the Healthy Hearing program has expanded their focus so anyone with an intellectual disability can have their hearing tested.
It’s a big step forward for remote and developing communities, a lack of access or financial resources in the past would be major barriers to health care. Thanks to the work being done globally, more ears can be tested and treated for hearing loss. Looking forward, the Special Olympics Healthy Hearing program is looking at developing a sustainable model so that everyone can get their hearing screened on a regular basis.
It’s critically important.
As recently outlined in a report from Hearing Health Care for Adults “hearing loss has been identified as the fifth leading cause, globally, of years lived with disability.” Amongst people with intellectual disabilities, the number for hearing loss is staggering. One in every three or four people suffers from some form of hearing loss. Of those who are afflicted with hearing loss, the majority are diagnosed with mild hearing loss. And about 40-50% of those cases are a result of too much wax buildup in the ear. Some can come about as a result of medication and some hearing loss is a result of physiometry.
“Special Olympic athletes have the same kinds of hearing loss as the general population but they have more of it and they get more permanent hearing loss younger,” says Beth Lannon, Global Clinical Advisor, Healthy Hearing.
For anyone who suffers from hearing loss, athletes and the general population included, it can be a very lonely place to be. In athletes, their performance and training can be severely compromised if they have hearing difficulties. Guidance from coaches, teammates or even understanding a call made by a referee can all be compromised, which is why accurate and timely diagnosis is so important. However, as Willems points out, most people prior to diagnosis, don’t even realize they suffer from hearing loss.
“It’s frustrating.” states Williams. “With people with intellectual disabilities, in a lot of cases nobody knows about the hearing loss so when we tell people they have hearing loss they are surprised.”
So how is hearing health tested?
The methodology for assessing Special Olympians involves both objective and subjective testing methods. The first step in the screening process involves the use of an otoacoustic emissions (OAE) detector.
If an athlete fails OAE testing two additional tests are performed: tympanometry and pure tone audiometry.
For Lannon and Willems, access to quality health care and education is a core part to the success of the program.
“Unfortunately these individuals don’t always have good access to health care or they have had a bad experience with a health care provider and don’t get regular follow up so this is a way for us to work with the athletes in a non-medical setting and identify and help them get the follow up they need.” according to Lannon.
Willems would like to see more attention paid to building the knowledge bank for health care providers on the crucial role that hearing plays in our everyday lives and how to deal with, and treat those who suffer a hearing disability. She believes that while advancements have been made, there is still a fairly wide knowledge gap on the subject.
“It needs to be part of every health professionals’ program, and families are very important too,” states Willems. “Our recommendations will be followed up more if they know why we screen and what the impact is on someone’s life.”
Programs such as Healthy Hearing are making their mark on a global scale. Millions of ears around the world are being tested, giving new hope and treatment options to those whose hearing has been compromised. Special Olympic events will continue to take place as athletes gear up for the World Winter Games in Austria which will take place in March 2017.