A school entertainment event two years ago sparked a program bringing speech-language pathologists and audiologists together in the Pittsburgh Public Schools to protect children's hearing. It started when SLP Emily Crow attended a teachers union reception where elementary students provided the entertainment with a drumming program.
"I was amazed at the abilities of these kids—they were so impressive," Crow said, adding, "But my ears were hurting from the noise. So I asked what kind of hearing protection they wore."
After learning the children were not protecting their hearing, Crow launched a mission leading to hearing protection for children in the majority of Pittsburgh elementary schools and some middle schools. In 2007 she was honored with the Musicians' Hearing Center (MHC) award. The MHC, part of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), presented the award in conjunction with the university's Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders and Etymotic Research, Inc.
Pittsburgh children use earplugs that were designed specifically for musicians and that dampen sound across all frequencies. These plugs replicate the natural response of the open ear so that music does not lose its "brightness."
"The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra uses them. The kids love the fact they're using the same equipment as professional musicians," Crow said. "You don't have to sell them on the idea. They think it's cool from the get-go."
Crow began her hearing protection quest by contacting a former professor, Catherine Palmer, UPMC's director of audiology. Palmer was in an ideal situation to offer suggestions, having established the MHC in 2003.
"Emily is just a star," Palmer said. "It occurred to her, if you want to access elementary schools [to provide information about hearing protection] the best way is with SLPs—there is one in every school but there is not an audiologist in every school."
The MHC carries out public education by targeting colleges and high schools. The center encourages musicians to do more to prevent hearing loss. Musicians are a population who face a tremendous amount of noise exposure that leads to hearing loss that is 100% preventable, said Palmer.
"We tailor the educational program to the school," she said. Students learn how the ear works, the effects of loud sound, the volume levels of various instruments and other common sounds, and how to protect their hearing. Palmer added, "Then we teach them how to use the earplugs. In some schools we do the program for the teachers and they then educate their students."
People often fail to protect their hearing because no damage seems apparent until years later, she said. "If you damaged your ears and they bled, people would do something about it," she added. The MHC wants people to understand that protecting hearing is no different from wearing goggles in chemistry class or helmets on the football field.
Crow knew that MHC was working with high schools and asked Palmer if she had thought about taking the hearing protection program to elementary schools.
Crow discussed the idea with her supervisor, Donna Westbrooks-Martin, who then made arrangements with Palmer to speak with Pittsburgh school SLPs and some music teachers. As participants, they could support as little or as much involvement as seemed necessary, making sure children were wearing hearing protection.
Since then, Crow has navigated the process of educating teachers about how to use the earplugs most effectively, Palmer said. Simple processes include labeling each case with the child's name, keeping the earplugs in the band room so they aren't left at home, and requiring their use in order to participate.
"Touching base with Dr. Palmer was the right thing to do," Crow said. "She spoke to our entire staff and there was a big increase in involvement."
The Musicians' Hearing Center of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center annually honors an individual who improves the health and quality of life of others in Southwestern Pennsylvania by promoting hearing protection. Awardees receive $1,000 to further their work of hearing protection.
Emily Crow can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Catherine Palmer can be contacted at mailto:email@example.com.