Sense of Self

How one southside student’s hearing loss
led to a lifelong calling

By Alisa Advani

»We often take our five senses for granted until one of them starts to fail, and although hearing loss occurs most frequently, modern science offers several proven methods to restore what’s been lost. Loud sounds most often cause hearing loss. In more extreme cases, congenital birth defects and disease lead to hearing impairment or complete deafness.

When a person experiences hearing loss, it is from one of two main causes: Either the hearing organ itself isn’t working correctly (sensorineural hearing loss) or the route within the ear that conducts sound waves has a malfunction (conductive hearing loss), explains Dr. Benjamin Copeland, a physician at Otolaryngology Associates at Franciscan St. Francis Health.

“Congenital hearing loss is the most common sensorineural type,” he says. “One in 1,000 kids is born with hearing loss. The auditory nerve itself is usually fine, but the problem usually rests in the hair cells.”

For mild to moderate hearing loss, hearing aids can help. In the case of profound loss, many patients receive cochlear implants. “The best news is that we have many tools to restore hearing,” he adds.

Born deaf, southsider Taylor Thompson received a cochlear implant in her right ear at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health when she was only 2 years old. Although the implant helped, she still struggled to hear, and school proved stressful as she grew.

“I struggled to make friends, and I was outcast,” she recalls. “Kids can be mean, and I also struggled with my identity.”

Animals soon became her best friends, Thompson recalls. “Dogs don’t have a mean bone in their bodies.”

When Thompson’s black Lab puppy, Drake, fell ill with parvovirus, she watched as her family’s veterinarian restored the dog’s health. Thompson was mesmerized, and from that moment she knew the path her life would take.

“From the time I was 10 years old, I had a life goal,” she says. “I had a to-do list. I started doing everything I could to get experience with animals. I did horseback riding to get equine experience. I volunteered at the Indy Zoo to get time in with exotic animals. I got involved in canine service clubs and fundraising, and while I was a student at Franklin College, I started Passion 4 Paws. Through that club, students fundraised for the Humane Society of Johnson County, and we also volunteered at various animal shelters,” says Thompson.

Today, she is a recipient of the Graeme Clark Scholarship by Cochlear America and a first-year veterinary medical student at Purdue University. The scholarship provides outstanding students with $2,000 per academic year. Thompson says that had she not been deaf, she wouldn’t have developed such drive and motivation in her adult life.

Sitting with her hearing assistance dog, Zoe, she reflects on her future. “It’s weird that I’m finally accomplishing my dream,” she says. “I’m in vet school.”

To other hearing impaired kids, Thompson says to “find something you love and stick with it,” while also urging them not to shy away from a challenge. “The most complicated things are the ones with which you aren’t familiar,” she says. “That’s where diversity comes into play. Those things make us smarter.”

How Hearing Works

So, how is it we can hear anything anyway? In healthy ears, sound waves enter through the ear canal and cause the eardrum to vibrate. These vibrations are transmitted to the cochlea, a nerve-dense command center located in the inner ear. Once inside the cochlea, fluid carries the vibrations to rows of hair cells. These cells stimulate auditory nerve fibers, each attuned to a different frequency. The frequency impulses travel via the auditory nerve to the brain, where they are interpreted as the numerous sounds that shape our living world.

In teens and adults, noise itself frequently causes hearing loss. We are born with a fixed number of hair cells, which cannot be replaced once they die. Damage to this finely tuned apparatus results from both volume and length of exposure to sound. Very loud blasts and clamors or chronic repetitive exposure to noise even when it is not particularly loud can wreak havoc on hair cells, causing them to degenerate.

“The earliest signs of hearing loss include ringing in the ears, known as tinnitus,” says Dr. Benjamin Copeland. “It can sound like static or the sound of the ocean. It is proportional to the hearing loss being experienced, and it manifests at the brain level. Other people have a sense of fullness in the ears. They will come into the office and say, ‘If I could pop my ears, I would feel better.’”

Copeland urges these patients to give hearing aids a try. “People are usually incredibly surprised to learn how much sound detail they miss daily,” he says. “They are much more open to get lenses and surgery for vision loss because there are so many more obvious signs. With hearing loss, there are not as many outward signs, so people just tend to smile and laugh it off.  It’s easier to hide. I suggest trying a demo pair, and then the patient can decide if the purchase is worthwhile.”

New technologies have made hearing aid design sleek. In the future, Copeland foresees hearing aids that fit directly onto the eardrum and cochlear therapies that might stimulate the growth of new hair cells. For now, he says there are very small aids available, which fit deep into the ear canal. “You wouldn’t know someone had them in until you looked in the ear with an otoscope,” he explains.


Q & A with Angie Balsley, executive director of Special Services,
Johnson County and Surrounding Schools (SSJCSS)

How long have you been in your role and how did you get interested in this line of work?
This is my fourth year at SSJCSS. The first two years I was an assistant director. I became interested in serving people with disabilities at a young age, as my godfather had Down syndrome. I was raised in an inclusive and accepting environment. I knew that I wanted to ensure that people with disabilities were afforded the services and support to be contributing members of their community.

How does your organization work with Johnson County Schools to help hearing-impaired children?
Special Services, Johnson County and Surrounding Schools (SSJCSS) is the special education cooperative serving seven school districts. We serve all of the districts in Johnson County, except Clark-Pleasant, and we also serve Southwestern Shelby Consolidated and Flat Rock-Hawcreek. We hire the teacher of record (a specialized teacher) for students with hearing impairments as well as the interpreters. We also provide interpreters for events such as school meetings, programs and graduation. Additionally, we employ all of the SLPs (speech-language pathologists) and school psychologists for the schools. Our SLPs provide therapy to students to improve their communication skills. They also use audiometers to screen students throughout their school career for hearing loss. The teacher, SLP and school psychologist work together with school personnel and families to assess students’ needs and develop individualized learning plans (IEPs) to assist in developing student skills. We also provide equipment for students to utilize at school, like sound amplification systems.

Finally, what do you think is most critical in public schools for hearing-impaired children?
Tai Botkin, the SSJCSS teacher for students with hearing impairments, said it best when she observed that “aligning specific accommodations to the individual student’s unique hearing loss is necessary. Leveling the playing field for accessibility is equally as important to ensure students have auditory access to both teachers and peers, alike.”