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17th September 2015

The mum who’s making kids’ hearing aids cool

Sarah Ivermee couldn’t have imagined that she’d become an overnight sensation when she gave a friend’s 9-year-old daughter some flowery nail stickers to use for sprucing up the plain beige hearing aids that she was embarrassed to wear. But it made all the difference in the world.

Other kids at school thought the decorated hearing aids were ‘cool’ and Sarah realised she was onto something. She searched for decorations that she could use for her own son’s hearing devices, but when she came up empty-handed, she decided to fashion some superhero designs herself. Suddenly, even kids without hearing problems were begging their parents for them, too.

There are about 32 million children worldwide with disabling hearing loss, and over 45,000 deaf children in the UK alone.1,2 Some wear traditional hearing aids, which fit into the ear and make sounds louder. Others are surgically fitted with cochlear implants, which use electrical signals to directly stimulate the auditory nerve. This nerve carries the signals from the cochlea to the brain, where they are perceived as sound.

Sarah’s 4-year-old son Freddie wears a hearing aid on one side and a cochlear implant on the other. When he was two months old, doctors discovered that Freddie was profoundly deaf in one ear and moderately to severely deaf in the other as a result of a virus he’d contracted in the womb. “Soon after diagnosis he was given his first hearing aid, a small beige coloured device with a clear mould. Not the best looking but it did the job! Then last year, at 3 years old, he had a cochlear implant fitted and the device choices were mildly better, but still just simple colours,” Sarah has previously written.

Fast-forward just over a year, and Sarah can barely keep up with the demand for orders of her kits with vinyl stickers and charms that people can use to decorate their hearing devices. Among other themes, they have Batman, Thomas the Tank Engine, Butterflies, Hello Kitty, Frozen and Minecraft on offer, and they’re constantly getting new ones in. Of course, Freddie gets first pick.

They’re so popular that parents of Freddie’s non-hearing impaired classmates sometimes find themselves in the awkward position of explaining to their children why they can’t have princess or Spiderman ears. And in her own house, Sarah has had to resort to letting Freddie’s 2-year-old brother wear the cochlear implant charms on a bracelet because he insists on having them but doesn’t understand why they keep falling off his ears when he tries them on.

Form follows function

“We’ve been very lucky that Freddie’s always wanted to wear his hearing devices, but it can be difficult for many kids, especially at certain ages. They don’t want to look different, but the technical side can also be challenging,” Sarah explained to This Is Medtech. “For example, some kids can be diagnosed and fitted with hearing devices later in life, and it wouldn’t occur to hearing people, but the sudden sound can be deafening. Couple this with the beige colour and there’s no chance you’re going to get a kid to try it.”

In fact, one of the first challenges for Freddie was socialising him in his playgroup, but not for the reasons you’d imagine. “You’d think that socialising would be difficult because he looked ‘different’ with the hearing aids, but kids at that age don’t notice. It’s the older kids and adults that notice. Freddie’s very friendly, but with 30 kids in the class, it was very noisy and he would often take himself off to a quiet place,” Sarah said.

For older kids who worry more about their appearance, “we want being ‘different’ to be good rather than bad,” she told us. And it’s working. “We hear so many stories of kids who are now proud to wear their hearing devices.”

There are clearly many parents and kids who are grateful for Sarah’s inspiration. “You name the country, I’ve sent the kits there,” she says. Plans are in the works to expand her rapidly growing company and reclaim her living room, where it all started.

World Health Organization, Fact Sheet No 300

Action on Hearing Loss, Statistics