Until someone points out to us that our perception or experience of our senses are not the norm, we often assume that everyone else hears, sees, smells, feels or tastes the same as we do. This has huge repercussions, especially when it comes to learning, if issues regarding one’s hearing and sight aren’t addressed early on in life. But how can we identify these issues among children and take action, especially in poorer communities that have limited access to healthcare?
hearX Group may have found the answer. hearX Group has bridged the gap to access in hearing care through the development of innovative mobile health technology to test hearing. hearX Foundation is the NPO leg of the organisation that brings the technology to life – where they use these innovative mobile solutions to implement screening and awareness programmes in undeserved communities. In addition, hearX Group has partnered with Vula Vision (a vision screening mobile application) to incorporate vision screening into their solutions, which allow dual sensory screenings (hearing and vision). We spoke to Tersia de Kock, director of the hearX Foundation and corporate audiologist and project lead at hearX Group, as well as Nausheen Dawood, consultant audiologist and project manager responsible for planning, design and implementation of these sensory screening programmes.
How did the hearX start and why was it needed?
“hearX Group was founded by Professor De Wet Swanepoel, a world-renowned audiologist, former president of the World Association of Audiologists, and professor in audiology at the University of Pretoria,” says Dawood. “hearX group came about when we saw that there was a gap in the need for hearing healthcare, where school health nurses were required to provide hearing screening at schools in line with their routine check-ups. Conventional hearing screening equipment were costly, bulky to carry around- which affected the reliability and the accuracy of the results yielded. We needed a solution that could be affordable, accurate and mobile to address the concerns in which conventional technology limited access to hearing care. And that’s how hearX Group developed its flagship product called hearScreen, which is used to reach even the most vulnerable of populations to provide them with access to hearing (and now vision) healthcare.”
According to De Kock, “hearX Foundation strives to impact hearing healthcare, through enhancing affordability and access to decentralised care. At hearX Foundation, we are the implementers that bring the services to the people; reaching those who haven’t had access to hearing healthcare before.”
Why is it so critical to identify any hearing or sight impediment in children at a young age?
De Kock explains that they have a special focus on young children, like pre-schoolers and those in the early grades, through a programme they call Ears and Eyes for Education; “because both hearing and vision are such essential building blocks for developing literacy and for educational success and, eventually, vocational outcomes.”
Adding to this Dawood says, “ if you can’t hear or see well, you won’t be able to learn well. And, as a result, you don’t reach your developmental milestones, and, because of delayed development, the repercussions affect one academically socio-emotionally and in the long term even economically. We therefore need to ensure that we identify these children as early as possible because early identification results in early intervention. And if they receive early intervention, it gives them the best possible outcomes going forward, and avoids the negative cycle of delayed developmental problems, social problems, and educational problems.”
How can teachers and parents help identify warning signs as to the quality of their children’s hearing and sight?
De Kock says that there’s a reason that hearing loss is referred to as an ‘Invisible Epidemic’ because as it often goes unnoticed. “It’s often only picked up through the long-term consequences,” De Kock explains “so once a child shows, for instance, behavioural difficulties where the child is labelled as the naughty kid in class. The long-term consequence touches every aspect of a person’s life: social, emotional, educational, vocational.”
“So, the way we see it,” Dawood elaborates, “is that teachers are ambassadors for promoting optimal education, and for this to happen young children need to hear and see because that is so crucial to learning. Because teachers work so closely with the children, they are key role players that can assist in identifying when a child experiences potential difficulty in hearing or vision.”
One such example took place at the Nokuphila Primary School where teachers were able to detect early signs of eyesight challenges of a child with albinism. The school struggled to get support for the child and that is how hearX Foundation was referred and the partnership between the two organisations began.
The EARS Teacher Training Programme, developed by hearX Foundation (in partnership with UP and Carel du Toit Centre & Trust), is specifically focused on training educators on how to detect red flags for potential hearing problems in children, in the classroom, so that they can refer them if necessary, or support those children who have hearing difficulties. The programme is implemented via WhatsApp in which the teachers receive informational materials in the form of messages, images and voice recordings, and upon completion receive a certificate in recognition of the training received.
Dawood also goes on to point out that parents are the key to implementing any interventions or medical requirements of the child: “An audiologist or teacher could identify the potential problem, but if the parents don’t act on the problem, then there will be no significant change. So usually, if we have parents that buy-in, you have a much better outcome.”
Walk us through the process and how you see your role within it:
De Kock views hearX Foundation as the glue in the process connecting those in need with healthcare services that can help, “we usually come to the school and bring the team to conduct the screening and educational programmes for the kids, parents, and teachers. Once we identify a child with a potential hearing or vision difficulty, we partner with healthcare providers in the public sector that offer follow-up services in the area. We try to keep them in the system because this child will probably need continual care. So, if we can plug them into the correct, most accessible service that’s a best fit to ensure the services are received. If a service doesn’t exist, or is not available, or has extremely long waiting lists, then we also reach out to other private sector partners to assist us with a follow up. We oversee all of that; we do all the calls; arrange the follow-up appointments; we remind the parents the day before; we empower the parent with why this appointment is important; sometimes our team members even go out to the homes and do a home visit to explain and get the parent onboard.”
Your relationship with The Love Trust’s Nokuphila Pre-Primary and Primary School
De Kock was already aware of some of the wonderful activities and initiatives of The Love Trust’s Nokuphila school via their social media posts and was pleasantly surprised when they reached out to partner with hearX Foundation. They, therefore, decided to partner with The Love Trust for their World Hearing Day campaign this year. The team at The Love Trust made everything seamless and smooth, arranging for the consent forms so that De Kock and her team were able to screen the entire school, provide the children with a fun play and dance activity to highlight awareness about how to protect their hearing, and provide training to the teachers. Dawood says that the dance routine they created for the children was so well received that they plan on incorporating it in most of their programmes, “because the response was phenomenal.”
“It was just absolutely fabulous to work with The Love Trust,” De Kock says. “I hope we can make it an annual visit to Nokuphila to make sure we get all the children tested. And now that the screening has been completed the real work starts to make sure we get all the little ones sorted out that were identified.”
The Love Trust is immensely grateful for the support received from hearX Foundation. Organistions like hearX help keep our mission of fostering quality education to vulnerable communities alive. We were so impressed with their professionalism, range of service, and commitment to impact children’s education through affordable and accessible hearing healthcare.
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