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Encouraging Peer Support Groups

By Mike Bury

Steudents On Steps

As children with hearing loss approach middle and high school, peer support groups can play an integral role in providing them with the necessary tools and emotional support to successfully navigate life’s roadblocks. Research by Goldberg (as cited in Jackson, 1993) shows that support groups help middle and high school students with hearing loss “cope with their situation better, provide valuable interpersonal insights…and generally help reinforce and encourage members of the group.”

As a young adult with a hearing loss, I have dealt with an array of challenging situations over the years – noisy classrooms, whispering, rapid-fire conversations, uncaptioned TV shows and hearing on the sports field. Despite these challenges, my experiences in the mainstream were very positive. Even though I was one of the only students with hearing loss in my school and seldom had the opportunity to interact with other teens who had a hearing loss, the interactions I did have helped me realize I wasn’t the only one with hearing loss and empowered me to become a confident self-advocate and student.

Audiologists Carrie Spangler, Au.D., and Susan Bussard, M.A., CCC-A, have spent the last 12 years working to help teens overcome similar challenges by developing Hearing-Impaired Teens Interacting Together (Hit It!), a support group for teens with hearing loss in Stark County, Ohio.

Creating a Place for Teens

When Spangler began thinking about establishing a support group for teens with hearing loss, she used her own experiences as a springboard. “As someone with a bilateral hearing loss who has worn hearing aids since age 4, I know the struggles of growing up in a mainstream school,” said Spangler. “It was difficult in middle and high school to be the only one who wore hearing aids. I never knew what to say to other kids when they asked me or teased me about my hearing aids and why I talked ‘funny.’ I wanted to create a place where teens who are deaf or hard of hearing could learn about their hearing loss and connect with others like them.”

Before launching Hit It!, Spangler and Bussard conducted a survey of special education directors in Stark County. Survey results indicated that every school district recognized a need for a support group for students with hearing loss.

With the support of special educators, parents and students, Spangler and Bussard launched Hit It! in 1999. They promoted the program by distributing flyers to prospective students, special education directors, school guidance counselors and school-based speech-language pathologists and by advertising in community bulletins and newspaper articles. They also wrote letters to introduce the program to parents, school superintendents and principals, guidance counselors, classroom teachers and speech-language pathologists, as well as students with hearing loss in the school district.

“When the program started, there were 41 students with hearing loss in the Stark County school district who could have benefited from participating in the program,” said Spangler. “Only nine students participated that first year. By 2006, however, the number of participants increased almost four fold, to 35 of 46 eligible students. Every year the number of program participants increases. It’s very encouraging.”

Joe Petrarca, director of special services at Lake Local school district in Uniontown, Ohio, agrees that programs like Hit It! fulfill a need for students with hearing loss. “Our students learn about their hearing loss and develop self-advocacy skills through Hit It!,” said Petrarca. “This, in turn, helps students gain peer support, which has resulted in a tremendous boost in students’ self esteem.”

Education and Self-Awareness

Currently, Hit It! meets five times a year at the Stark County Educational Service Center, with each meeting taking place during the school day and lasting several hours. Spangler and Bussard work directly with school administrators and parents to ensure students receive excused absences to participate in the program and to help coordinate transportation. Some students drive themselves to the center, and others receive rides from parents or their school district.

Through field trips, activities, technology demonstrations and peer interaction, Hit It! fosters education, leadership, public awareness, self-advocacy and team-building skills among program participants. At the heart of each meeting is an educational component in which students learn, for example, about the anatomy of the ear and the degree and type of their hearing loss, as well as potential causes. They also discuss the importance of early identification and how hearing technology such as hearing aids, cochlear implants and assistive listening devices can enhance their academic experiences and social interactions.

“By learning about their hearing loss and sharing personal experiences with their peers, students learn how to develop effective coping mechanisms and to be successful self-advocates,” said Spangler. “We also partner with Great Lakes Earmold Lab to provide program participants with a hearing aid or cochlear implant care kit, which includes tips for maintaining proper function. By accepting their hearing loss, students are more willing to use hearing technology and advocate for themselves.”

During meetings, students both share and develop a variety of communication strategies. For example, Hit It! focuses on honing practical skills such as communicating with a police officer, discussing challenges with parents and remembering to carry replacement batteries for hearing aids and cochlear implant speech processors. Students also develop a business card that identifies them as a person with hearing loss to facilitate communication in difficult situations.

When Kim Sears, a senior at Marlington High School and Hit It! participant, was pulled over by local police for having a broken taillight, she handed the officer her business card with her driver’s license. “The card was helpful because I was nervous,” said Sears. “My card indicates that I have a hearing loss, wear hearing aids and lip-read. After reading the card, the officer looked at me when he was speaking so I could lip-read him and understand what he was saying.”

Another component of the program teaches students about the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and their legal rights under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. In many instances, participation in Hit It! becomes an IEP goal. “Students emerge more confident and willing to help others with hearing loss as well as themselves,” said Petrarca. “Older students also mentor younger students outside the program meetings. There is a real sense of community among Hit It! participants.”

Fostering Social Interaction

Perhaps most importantly, Hit It! serves as an opportunity for students to meet other teens with hearing loss and explore how their hearing loss affects them at school, at home and in social situations. “We work hard to provide these students with the support they need to accept their hearing loss in a positive way,” said Spangler. “Developing this foundation is so important to success in other areas. Two of our students have published articles about their hearing loss and many have received scholarships or financial aid for college.”

When asked about the need for similar support groups in other school systems, Spangler responded affirmatively. “With inclusion in schools, many students who are deaf or hard of hearing find they are the only ones in their school with a hearing loss. These students need a safe place to explore and share their feelings and learn about their hearing loss. Programs like Hit It! provide just that.”

Reference

Jackson, T. (1993). Activities that Teach. Cedar City: Red Rock Publishing.

Source: Volta Voices, January/February 2007