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Hearing Aids

TC team delivers speech and language therapy via the Internet to a school for the deaf in Bolivia

Recently at TC’s Edward D. Mysak Speech, Language & Hearing Center, five-year old Sergio appeared on a computer screen through a webcam connection from Bolivia.

Sergio is a student at Camino de Sordos, a school for the deaf in La Paz. On 120th Street, Ana de la Iglesia and Courtney Van Buskirk, students in TC’s Speech and Language Pathology program, were squeezed into the tiny lab on the first floor of Zankel Hall with Catherine Crowley, Founder and Coordinator of the Bilingual/Bicultural Emphasis Track at TC, and two visitors.

All are part of a new program at TC that delivers aural therapy, over the Internet through Web cameras, to students at the Camino de Sordos. In fluent Spanish, Crowley, Iglesia and Van Buskirk began trying to entice Sergio, who had just recently received a hearing aid, to repeat some sounds that he will need to begin speaking. But Sergio, endearingly shy, hid his face from the webcam hooked up to a computer at his school.

“Sergio, mi amor, let’s play?” entreated Crowley.

Sergio seemed not to understand the query. He moved his ear closer to the computer. Thanks to the hearing aids provided by the program, Sergio and some his classmates had just begun hearing much at all. For Sergio and the others, the arduous task of learning to speak—and all the complexity that goes with it—lay before them.

“I want you to repeat these words, Sergio,” said Iglesia.


No word from Sergio.

“The next: ‘dedos’.”

“Ded... Ded...”








“Dada. Dapi...”

Muy bien, Sergio, very good. Now let’s sing!”

Seven other TC students—all with native Spanish proficiency—also were involved in the remote therapy effort including Ileana Perez, Natalia Martinez, Jennifer Rodriguez, Emily Sweet and Cate Bradford.

Remote therapy is the newest globalization effort in the Speech and Language Pathology program, which offers its students international opportunities to provide free speech and language services to children with disabilities.

“It’s an incredibly valuable, life-changing experience, particularly given the growing Hispanic population in the U.S.,” said Crowley, also a lecturer in TC’s Speech and Language Pathology program and Director of the Bilingual Extension Institute. Crowley has taken students on month-long trips to Bolivia for the past three summers, and she is ramping up an on-site program in Ghana and exploring a third in Cambodia (See story on page 12).

The remote therapy project in Bolivia started at Camino de Sordos, where TC students have worked for three summers. The students attending Camino de Sordos did not have hearing aids, and Crowley wanted to make hearing aids and therapy available so they could learn how to use them. With few speech-language pathologists in Bolivia, the only way to provide these services was via the Internet. TC alumna Melissa Inniss, a Panamanian audiologist and speech language pathologist, heard about the project and offered to help. After Ray Diaz, a technology expert whose wife works with Crowley, visited the group in La Paz, he decided to get the computers and a webcam using Skype for the school.

A defunct financial services company donated three computers to Camino de Sordos and another trio to the Mysak Center. The Skype hookup enabled the La Paz students to see and hear the therapists in training from New York and to begin receiving aural habilitation therapy through the Internet.

Funded by the Downey Family Foundation, Inniss and Diaz returned to La Paz in August 2008. Inniss tested the hearing of all the students and fitted 11 students, ages 4 to 17, with hearing aids. Diaz set up the computers and Skype connection. The students then had to learn to detect and differentiate the sounds they now heard, and then perceive and produce the sounds of spoken Spanish.

“Is it like going to a country where you don’t understand their language?” Crowley was asked. “It’s even more challenging than simply learning a second language. These children know sign language, but prior to receiving the hearing aids in August, they never had the capacity to understand any spoken language.

“One teenager told us how he had had hearing aids when he was a young but did not use them because he could not make sense out of the sounds. Since receiving a new hearing aid in August, he has made great progress because he already knew a language—sign language. As a result, he has acquired spoken Spanish quickly and now understands his family when they speak Spanish, which was not possible for him before.”

Of the eight TC students involved in the remote therapy effort, five are native Spanish speakers, and the others have acquired native-Spanish language skills.

Crowley said she believes TC is the first speech and language program to provide students with the opportunity to provide aural habilitation therapy through the Internet. She is a strong advocate for international and intercultural programs at TC, particularly in speech and language pathology. “These programs develop the students’ bilingual skills and deepen their understanding of how culture can have a profound impact on student success,” she said.

“These skills are particularly valuable in our increasingly diverse schools, especially in large urban areas like New York City. Our TC program has a strong commitment to educating students so that as professionals they work effectively in a multicultural world,” Crowley said.

Read more about the Telepractice to Bolivia project at www.tc.columbia.edu/bbs/speech-language/.


Published Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2009