September 21, 2010 Feature

Bringing Hearing Aids and Hope to Chinese Orphans

Iowa Project Offers Cultural and Educational Exchange

Infants at Nanchang Social Welfare Institute in Nanchang.A decade ago I joined a dozen faculty from around the world who brought audiology to China as part of a grant to The Western University of Medical Sciences in Chengdu, the Sichuan Province in China, and Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Each faculty member taught month-long modules in his or her area of expertise, including electrophysiology, aural rehabilitation, hearing aids, cochlear implants, and other topics. I shared my knowledge of hearing aids with a class of mostly practicing otolaryngologists who sought to improve themselves by learning about the non-medical management of the ear, i.e., audiology. These bright young surgeons hungered for information about audiology, and I was equally hungry to learn more about the culture of this enigmatic country.

My first experience in mainland China was an unforgettable adventure. Never mind that I had been teaching in the Hong Kong program for several years; this was my first foray into the real China, replete with the open meat markets, foods-on-a-stick, rickshaw rides, barbers on street corners, and bicycles everywhere. This trip and subsequent visits brought experiences such as getting lost in a local neighborhood at night without the language needed to get back to my hotel, watching a snake being sliced for someone's lunch, petting baby pandas, and other aspects of daily life in China.

During one trip I was struck by the plight of the many orphans in the country. In part because of the one-child rule of 1979, China has thousands of orphanages filled with females, many of whom have disabilities, cleft lip or palate, and malformations of the ears. With a nudge from Linda Louko, director of the University of Iowa Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Center, and several departmental faculty who had adopted children from these Chinese orphanages, a project was born.

In 2004 four faculty and a Chinese-speaking graduate student traveled to Nanchang, China, to provide hearing aids and audiology services to children in the Nanchang Social Welfare Institute, a typical orphanage in the JiangXi Provence, southwest of Shanghai.

The experience had such an impact on us all that a group has returned annually with the same purpose—to provide hearing screening and fit hearing aids when necessary for as many children as we can in a week. In May 2008 we screened more than 175 children, including infants. In addition, we offered workshops and lectures at a nearby hospital. Although our May 2009 trip was canceled due to the H1N1 flu pandemic, we were able to reschedule the trip in the fall, providing the same rich cultural and educational exchange opportunity for students, staff, and personnel at the local orphanage and hospital.

Each year we seek donations of hearing aids, batteries, and other needed supplies in addition to the transportation and housing costs for travelers. In May 2010, a graduate class of eight students traveled to Tianjin, a municipality south of Beijing, as part of their Capstone requirement. Each student prepared a lecture and/or workshop to present at the local hospital. Topics ranged from cytomegalovirus (CMV) and its implication for newborn hearing screening to new hearing aid technologies. The group also tested hearing at the orphanage and nearby children's hospital.

The original aim was to provide audiometic services to orphans and offer training to hospital and orphanage staff, but every traveler has gained a newfound appreciation for the need to provide global teaching and humanitarian service. I will travel with the China Project for many years to come. Each new experience reminds me of why I chose this field.    

Ruth Bentler, PhD, CCC-A, is professor of audiology in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Iowa and co-director of the IOWA China Project. Contact her at 

cite as: Bentler, R. (2010, September 21). Bringing Hearing Aids and Hope to Chinese Orphans : Iowa Project Offers Cultural and Educational Exchange. The ASHA Leader.


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