League hears about Downtown, then moves there


By Jessica Mintz

Faiza Pastula is watching her 10-month-old son play with his father and a handful of other toddlers and parents. Everyone is waving ribbons and making noise; then, together, they fall silent and still.

A sweet children’s game, interrupted by a few striking details: Pastula is watching the scene through a one-way glass window, and her tiny son Zain, with a thick tuft of hair down the middle of his forehead, has two visible hearing aids connected by wires to a box at his waist.

This therapy group, run by a speech pathologist, takes place at the League for the Hard of Hearing, a nonprofit organization founded in New York in 1910 by people who were hard of hearing themselves. Today, the league operates a second facility in Florida (after merging in 2001 with United Hearing and Deaf Services, Inc.) and two audiological testing vans that travel throughout the New York City region, targeting traditionally underserved areas. The league’s clients span a broad spectrum both in age and in degree of hearing loss.

“It’s the largest disability group,” says Dr. Laurie Hanin, an audiologist and co-executive director of the league. Hearing loss affects 28 million people in this country, or about 10% of the national population, according to Hanin.

But, says Joseph Brown, her co-executive director, “as a disability, it’s not so well-known. It’s not recognized. It’s a struggle to raise money.”

After Sept. 11, tight economic conditions coupled with financial incentives to restart development in Lower Manhattan inspired the league to take a leap Downtown from its 40-year-old offices on 23rd St. in Chelsea. “It was to save on our rent,” says Brown, and, he says, it was time to upgrade. “We were able to build a brand-new facility, and make more efficient use of the space.”

Two months ago, the league opened its doors at 50 Broadway near Bowling Green. The new office, which occupies 23,000 square feet over a floor and a half, is about 3,000 square feet smaller than the league’s Chelsea location, but Brown says that starting from scratch allowed the league to use space more efficiently. Brown and Hanin contributed to the design, which includes six custom-made audiological testing booths, four individual communication therapy rooms and two group therapy rooms. The space, says Brown, is better equipped to serve its existing 23,000 clients and help more people in the increasingly residential Downtown area.

Pastula’s son and other children make up only about 25% of the league’s clients, but watching them gives many clues to the league’s overall philosophy for helping clients cope with hearing loss.

Zain was born profoundly deaf in both ears, says Pastula. “We were completely shocked, surprised, and very upset,” says Pastula, remembering the grief she and her husband shared.

Pastula was quickly connected with the league, and “we never looked back.” Zain was fitted with two hearing aids when he was 3 months old, and enrolled in therapy groups. As a result, says Pastula, “He’s more verbal, more social.”

Like many profoundly deaf people, Zain won’t benefit much from hearing aids. This week, he will get a cochlear implant – an electronic device threaded deep into the ear that sends electrical signals directly to the auditory nerve.

Zain’s hearing loss was caught at birth, thanks in part to mandatory statewide testing of newborns. He will continue to attend therapy at the league, and by the time he is ready to attend a regular preschool, he should be on par with his age group’s communication and cognitive skills.

Pastula talks comfortably about her son and his excellent prognosis; the twice-weekly therapy sessions are as much about helping parents come to terms with raising hearing-impaired children.

But for adults, who make up the other 75% of the league’s clients, it may be harder to come to terms with hearing loss, even though two thirds of people over the age of 70 will be affected to some degree, according to Brown.

“It takes about seven years for someone with a hearing loss to do something about it,” says Brown. “In that time, they become isolated,” because it’s harder for them to enjoy what used to be normal elements of their social life.

Still, once they come in the door, the process is the same: testing, evaluations to decide whether a hearing aid is appropriate – and if so, what kind – or whether the client might get more benefit from an implant. (One challenge, says Hanin, is to erase some of the hearing aid stigma. Today, analog and digital hearing aids have far surpassed the quality of older models.)

Adults whose hearing loss is profound don’t benefit from hearing aids; many, like Lolita Chan, an accountant at the league, get a cochlear implant.

Chan’s hearing disintegrated quickly when she was 27. Now 52, she waited 20 years to get an implant – partly because her husband was nervous about surgery so close to her brain. But once she took the leap, the outcome was rewarding.

“I can hear birds chirping. I can hear cars. I watch TV, and if I try to close my eyes, I can still understand it,” says Chan. She even remembers shedding tears when she heard “Silent Night” in Lord & Taylor’s department store, for the first time since her 20s.

After figuring out the best way to help a client access whatever hearing possible, it’s “one-stop shopping,” as Hanin says – the league sells hearing aids, along with useful gadgets like vibrating pillow alarm clocks.

Then, there is therapy to help clients learn to use what hearing they can to speak and speech read (once called lip reading) – with the goal of getting them functioning in the mainstream like any other person, without sign language. Mental health and career counselors are also on hand to help. Clients come in to socialize with people their own age – or maybe just for a hearing aid tune-up.

The move Downtown hasn’t changed the demographics of the league’s clients, says Brown, though he thinks it’s still too early to tell if any new services will be called for. One thing he is looking forward to is working on fundraising and partnerships with his new neighbors on Wall St., easing some of the obstacles the agency has encountered in raising $3 million of its $6 million annual operating budget. In the long term, Hanin and Brown also dream of partnering with a preschool as a way of integrating their clients into mainstream education even more quickly than they do today.

“This isn’t just an agency for people with severe problems,” says Brown. “If you think you have hearing loss, come. We’ll test you.” Living in a noisy city, Downtown residents who now are even closer to the league might want to take him up on it, because noise, says Hanin, is the largest cause of hearing loss. “It’s not caused by noise overnight, but if you’re riding the subway 1-2 hours a day, by the time your in your 40s or 50s, you’ll have some kind of hearing loss.” Other culprits are loud music, video games, movie theater trailers, lawnmowers, and even toys (some of which emit sounds louder than the legal noise limit for a workplace).

When asked for suggestions for protection on the subway, Hanin suggests earplugs (but sheepishly admits that she doesn’t take her own advice), available free of charge in overflowing boxes right inside the league’s new doorway.

Lolita Chan, the league’s accountant, said after she received cochlear implants, she cried when she heard “Silent Night” in a department store.

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