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Alumnae listen, answer call for help in Nunavut

by Paul Mayne | December 8, 2016

While an estimated one in five Northern students suffer some form of permanent hearing loss due to untreated ear infections, a simple solution, pushed forward by a team of Western alumnae, is making strides in targeting this complex problem.

Sparked by Western alumnae Lynne Powell McCurdy and Pam Millet, who met doing their masters in Clinical Sciences in 1989, the Better Hearing in Education for Northern Youth (BHENY) project is amplifying learning opportunities for Inuit youth through the use of sound-field systems in remote Baffin Island (Qikiqtaaluk) schools.

Designed specifically for speech, sound-field systems outfit a teacher with a headset microphone connected to speakers placed throughout the classroom. These simple systems have been shown to improve students’ attentiveness, participation, comprehension and concentration. Additionally, teachers avoid vocal strain since it is no longer necessary for them to yell to reach all students.

For McCurdy, a Guelph-based audiologist, her journey began when she joined her local Rotary Club seeking to learn more about Indigenous culture. She knew Inuit people experienced 40 per cent higher incidences of hearing loss than the average Canadian, so she contacted Kim Hurley, the only audiologist in the Baffin Region of Nunavut. While one fifth of Canada’s land mass, Nunavut has only one full-time audiologist. (Ontario has more than 700.)

“They have huge needs up there, as expected, and she said she could totally use our help,” said McCurdy, who then traveled to visit Hurley and witnessed the problems first-hand. “I saw some huge, diverse delivery of hearing care in Nunavut. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I told Kim there were like 20 things we could do up there. But, I asked, what was most important for her?”

Hurley had started a program to get sound systems for the schools, but it stalled due to lack of funding and infrastructure. McCurdy approached her Rotary Club with the idea, applying for, and receiving a $300,000 Arctic Inspiration Prize, which funds wellness projects in the Canadian North.

Better Hearing in Education for Northern Youth project member Pam Millett talks with students in a remote Baffin Island (Qikiqtaaluk) school, where sound-field systems are being installed in close to 150 classrooms in 13 different communities to improve students’ attentiveness, participation, comprehension and concentration levels.

McCurdy and Millett, along with other members of BHENY team, including fellow Western graduate Carolyn Edwards, have since begun the task of seeing 13 communities receive the sound-field systems. That means more than 150 classrooms need to be outfitted throughout the region, along with training and on-going support for teachers.

“Of course, the solution would be to fix the ear infections. But that is an even bigger problem,” said Millett, a professor in York University’s Educator of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing program. “This is a simple technology, which is great for classroom management and allows the kids to hear better.

“People don’t think of hearing loss necessarily. They think when a child is having difficulty that they’re just not paying attention or they lack motivation. Hearing is not at the front of people’s minds.”

BEHNY has since received an additional 69 sound field systems thanks to a $150,000 in-kind donation from the Hear the World Foundation. Four communities have been outfitted with the system so far, with another five or six to be completed before end of the school year.

The Nunavut Department of Education has since come on board to assist with moving the program forward. This buy in is vital to the project’s ongoing success, McCurdy said.

“It’s not us telling them what they need. It’s us saying, ‘What do you need?’” she continuned. “They wanted this program, but it just never happened. So, we made it happen for them. It’s really their project, not ours. Language and literacy skill development is highly dependent on being able to hear the sound. The response has been very positive, to have a process that is going to be sustainable.”

McCurdy added the project is a great opportunity to shed light on the issue and raise its profile among decision-makers. She expects the ongoing problem to be an eye-opener for many.

“It has been for me,” she said. “For someone who initially knew nothing about our North, it’s been remarkable. I’ve learned so much and I’m now trying to share it down here. There are a lot of other places where we can lend a hand. We really need to bridge this gap.”

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