The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that hearing impairment is the most common sensory deficit in human populations, affecting more than 250 million people in the world. WHO describes the consequences of hearing impairment, which include inability to interpret speech sounds leading to a reduced ability to communicate, delay in language acquisition, economic and educational disadvantage, social isolation, and stigmatization.
It may be worsened, WHO reports, by certain medical conditions, such as hypothyroidism, diabetes, and possibly hyperlipidemia. In its more severe form, hearing loss can keep otherwise healthy children and adults from going to school and working, as they are considered deaf, even if they have some residual hearing.
Hearing loss leads to poverty and hardship in the families and communities affected and, by extension, to the larger society. Those affected suffer from the lack of educational and occupational opportunities. People with disabilities have a higher rate of unemployment than the national average, and they have less access to education and training, as well as a higher incidence of HIV.
Of course, audiologists have known this about hearing loss for years, and hearing aid manufacturers, audiologists, and others from developed countries have attempted to provide and fit hearing instruments on patients in various undeveloped parts of the world.
These companies and individuals should be commended for their humanitarian efforts to bring better communication and hearing health to places where other issues are paramount. However, in many places, when the batteries go dead on hearing aids, the users do not obtain new ones. Often that’s because their desperate poverty forces them to choose between buying batteries to continue hearing and buying food to keep them and their families alive. Thus, after the clinicians leave, the hearing instruments they fitted often go unused for lack of a power source. One of the biggest thresholds to cross in bringing hearing to the world has long been battery power.
Enter the Solar Ear……
The major hearing aid manufacturers have had a rather difficult time getting re-chargers to work with hearing instruments; also, battery manufacturers have not really been helpful in producing rechargeable batteries that can be used in hearing instruments.
Although there are chargers for other types of batteries, such as the AA and AAA, chargers for hearing aid batteries are not readily available. With a few notable exceptions, such as Hansaton and Siemens, a reliable method of recharging hearing aid batteries has been needed for quite some time. Although recharging of some hearing aid batteries is possible, the charging device usually needs to be plugged into an electrical outlet to recharge.
Solar hearing aids–mostly rather large, ugly ITE products–have been tried in the past, but without much success. Solar Ear is a rechargeable hearing device that uses solar energy to charge the instrument’s battery, facilitating a virtually unlimited source of energy for the aid. At the end of the day the instrument is simply put on the solar charger and it recharges the device.
The development of the Solar Ear is an interesting and rather inspirational story. After a series of life-changing events, Howard Weinstein took a volunteer position with the World University Service of Canada to work at Camp Hill Community Trust, a community for people with disabilities in Botswana. While in Botswana he was assigned to a solar-powered hearing aid project, but no funding, staff, or products were provided. Weinstein persisted anyway, eventually mustering up enough cash and outside technological expertise to develop a solar-powered analog hearing aid.
During his four years at Camp Hill, Howard implemented the start-up company Godisa Technologies, where he employed persons with hearing loss and physical disabilities. At Godisa, Howard and his workers produced three products:
- a solar energy powered hearing aid
- an analog solar charger
- and a rechargeable battery
These innovative products won GodisaTechnologies an International Design Award for the best product in Africa in 2005. Within three years, the company had manufactured more than 60,000 hearing aids and became financially sustainable.
After four years in Botswana, Weinstein took his project to the Instituto CEFAC, a group of professionals in health and education based in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The group has devoted years of work to seeking solutions that make a range of services more accessible for most people. With the assistance of Instituto CEFAC and several other stakeholders, Weinstein has now successfully replicated the Solar Ear project in Brazil. It employs hearing-impaired Brazilians to manufacture hearing instruments that run on solar-powered battery technology, freeing hearing aid users from the economic burden of purchasing regular zinc-air batteries for about $1 per week.
The hearing aid itself costs under $100–a fraction of the price of standard instruments – and it comes with tw0 $1 rechargeable batteries that last up to three years with daily charges. The ingenious charger that comes with the device can obtain energy from either the sun or an electrical outlet.
For the past three years, Weinstein has been working on bringing a digital version of the solar-powered hearing aid to Brazil. Meanwhile, Botswanan citizens who worked on the original project have been coming to Brazil to teach the locals how to make the hearing aids, which will be sold throughout Latin America for $125. Thus far, Weinstein has sold over 20,000 Solar Ears in 30 countries. Not bad for a project that started out less than a decade ago with nothing.
By developing practical, affordable technologies for the third world, while creating employment, training, and education programs for people with hearing loss, Solar Ear has become a sustainable professional enterprise. Many of these hearing instruments are distributed to underprivileged children at a critical time in their development of speech and cognitive abilities.
Through Solar Ear, Howard Weinstein is creating new access to hearing instruments and improved social integration for the huge population of low-income people with hearing loss in the developing world. His next project is to bring Solar Ear to Palestine, where locals will work with deaf Israeli and Jordanian youth to manufacture the Solar Ear. He feels that this is not only a method of assisting the hearing impaired, but also a peace-building initiative.
Hearing International takes its hat off to Howard Weinstein, a man who is making a difference for the hearing-impaired population in the developing world.