Foundation teams up with NFL players to shatter stigma attached to hearing loss

By David H. Kirkwood

SYRACUSE, NY—The HearStrong Foundation was launched nationwide last week with an ambitious mission: to connect with and empower the 80% of those whose hearing loss has not been treated to take control of their hearing health.

Ed Keller
Ed Keller

Ed Keller, president of the HearStrong Foundation, said its guiding principle is “Change the message, change the world.” Keller, who is also founder and president of the EarQ Group, explained in a January 28 interview with this blog that HearStrong is out to shatter social stigmas and challenge the general perception of hearing loss in our society. It is determined to shift public attention from what people with hearing loss can’t do to celebrating people who have addressed their hearing loss and gone on to great accomplishments.

To this end, the foundation is reaching out to people nationwide, asking them to nominate prospective HearStrong Champions, the term the foundation has coined for individuals who have not let their hearing loss limit their dreams. Keller said, “We will tell each Champion’s  empowering story to the world through local, national and worldwide media outlets  to influence others to choose to hear better as well.



The HearStrong Foundation is looking to raise its profile this Saturday, February 2 when it takes part in a pre-Super Bowl event in New Orleans. At the event, which will be attended by members of the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), the foundation will honor its latest HearStrong Champion.

Paul Szemborski
Paul Szemborski

He is Paul Szemborski Jr., a 17-year-old junior at Newton (TX) High School with a passion for football. A hearing loss, diagnosed at age 5, was holding Paul back both in the classroom and on the football field, where his inability to hear the quarterback’s play calls threatened to sideline him. But then a successful hearing aid fitting turned his life around.

Now, Paul has gained newfound confidence in school. He says, “I understand my friends, parents, teacher. It’s a lot easier.” He adds, “My first football practice with hearing aids was a like a dream come true. I almost cried because I was able to really communicate and interact with my teammates.”

Last fall, he played defensive tackle and center for the Newton Eagles, who had a 13-1 record and were the 40th-ranked high school team in Texas.



From early on, the HearStrong program has had ties to professional football players. Keller knew from his friend Dick McPherson, a former head coach of the New England Patriots and the Syracuse University football team, that hearing loss is especially common among football players. The frequent head injuries that football players suffer often involve damage to the auditory system.

In fall 2011, EarQ, in conjunction with the NFL Players Association, launched a program that made current and former players and their families eligible for education about hearing care, hearing evaluation, and discounted prices on hearing aids from EarQ members, who have offices in more than 1400 locations in the U.S.

At the time, Keller said that the program would turn “a spotlight on hearing loss for everybody. By providing this discount to the players, we hope to raise awareness of hearing impairments, lessen the stigma of using hearing devices, and help the general public improve their hearing health.”

When Keller conceived of the HearStrong Foundation, it seemed only natural for him to turn again to the NFLPA. “HearStrong is a term of empowerment and football players are a symbol of strength and power,” he said. He added, “The Players Association stepped right up to partner with our campaign.”



Jerome Evans
Jerome Evans

While the foundation has received strong support from NFL players, it has selected as HearStrong Champions people who have succeeded in a wide range of pursuits.

Among those featured on the HearStrong web site is Calen Wright, a high school student from Knoxville, TN, who is a gifted pianist and an inspiring advocate for others with hearing loss. Another Champion is Jerome C. Evans, AuD, an audiologist and cochlear implant wearer who wants to make sure other young people don’t make his mistake of trying to hide his hearing loss by refusing to wear hearing aids during his teenage years.

Also cited was Colleen Van Rooy, of Appleton, WI. A mother of four who works as a trainer/installer for the CaptionCall telephone for the hearing impaired, she also devotes much time to a local homeless shelter, a soup kitchen, the Lions Club, and the Appleton School District, which honored her as its 2007 Volunteer of the Year.

Colleen Van Rooy
Colleen Van Rooy



Keller urged people to nominate as prospective HearStrong Champions patients, friends, co-workers, and family members who have refused to let hearing loss deter them from their goals. Those officially selected by the foundation will be celebrated in an official naming ceremony at their local hearing care provider’s office. By publicizing champions in the local and national press, the foundation hopes to motivate the tens of millions of Americans with untreated hearing loss to seek assistance.

The EarQ Group is a primary supporter of the HearStrong Foundation. However, Keller emphasized, HearStrong Champions need not have any connection with EarQ. “We welcome support from everybody,” he said.