The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
Solar-Powered Hearing Aids Are Music to the Ears of Kids Around the World
Grace O’Brien’s motto has always been, “I don’t know what I want to be, but I want to be something great. Meaning, I want to make sure that whatever I choose to do, it’s making a positive impact.”
So far, the 18-year old Stanford freshman is off to a pretty good start. At 14, she founded the nonprofit Ears for Years, which has supplied hundreds of low-cost, solar-powered hearing aids to children in developing countries. And O’Brien has already received national attention as one of the 2015 winners of the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes.
Founder of Ears for Years Grace O'Brien, center. Photo credit: Earsforyears.org
When she was growing up, O’Brien says, her family was very service-minded. She often spent Sunday mornings serving food at a local homeless shelter or making blankets for hospitals with her sisters. But the issue of hearing loss really hit home when her father developed a brain tumor and suffered some hearing loss, making communication difficult. Later, while looking for a summer volunteer position, she discovered a theater camp for deaf children.
“I knew it was the perfect place for me to integrate my love for theater and volunteering,” O’Brien says. “As I worked with the kids over the summer, I realized how important hearing aids were to many of the children's ability to learn and communicate. I became more involved in the deaf community that summer, and I discovered that there are roughly 30 million hard-of-hearing children in developing countries who could benefit from a hearing aid but don’t have access to one.”
According to the World Health Organization, of the 360 million people around the world who suffer from hearing loss, 32 million are children, and the majority are in developing countries.
“I wanted to find a sustainable and affordable solution, so when I came across Solar Ear, I knew I had to work with them,” O’Brien says. “I reached out to the founder of Solar Ear, Howard Weinstein, and we realized many of our goals were aligned, so it seemed like a perfect fit to work together. My friends and family served as pillars of support, helping me arrange fund-raisers and get the word out. I also created a club at my high school.”
Founded in 2003, Solar Ear seeks to address not only the high cost of hearing aids in developing countries, but also the difficulty and high cost of keeping them charged. Standard hearing aids can cost as much as $1,000, require constant battery changes and don’t have a long life span. The Solar Ear device is $100, has a three-year life span and includes rechargeable batteries that use a solar-powered charger. The charger can also be plugged into a light socket to recharge.
“In the developing world, people lucky enough to own a hearing aid either can’t get hold of or can’t afford the batteries which, by the way, they have to replace once a week,” Weinstein told the World Health Organization. “So the devices end up on a shelf somewhere or in the kitchen drawer.”
Weinstein shares O’Brien’s desire to make a positive impact.
“We could have patented the Solar Ear charger in a heartbeat, but we wanted people to copy us,” Weinstein said. “In fact, if somebody ends up producing a cheaper, better version of the Solar Ear and uses their distribution channel to get more products to more children with hearing loss, we will have attained our objective—even if that puts us out of business.”
So far, Solar Ear has gone into production in Brazil, China, Mexico, Russia and Singapore, with one condition from Weinstein: that deaf people be involved in making them.
“Hearing aids can be an essential tool for communication for someone who is hard of hearing,” says O’Brien, “so I think it’s important for children who need them to have them, to retain information, get a valid education and have a chance at building a better life for themselves.”
The Solar Ear rechargeable battery and solar charger. Photo credit: YouTube
O’Brien explains that many developing countries don’t have special schools or accommodations for deaf children, so it can be difficult for them to learn and interact with their peers.
“I believe every child should be given the tools they need to get a valid education,” she says, “and for hard-of-hearing children, that tool set might be a little different.”
O’Brien has already traveled to Mexico, Sri Lanka, Honduras, Nicaragua and South Korea, fitting hundreds of children with Solar Ear hearing aids and educating communities about deafness.
“Many people don’t know what causes deafness,” she says, “so explaining it can help to prevent and eradicate prejudices.” Among children, chronic otitis media, meaning a long-standing ear infection, is the leading cause of hearing impairment.
While O’Brien hopes to continue providing deaf and hard-of-hearing children around the world with hearing aids, she’s casting a much wider net for her future.
“By spreading the word and fighting for people with disabilities, I hope I can find ways to convince countries that don’t already have accommodations to implement programs and accommodations for children with disabilities,” she says. “I’m still young, and my life has the potential to take many different paths, but wherever I go, I want to make sure I’m making a positive difference.”
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Jennifer Molidor, PhD
Climate change, habitat loss and pollution are overwhelming our planet. Thankfully, these enormous threats are being met by a bold new wave of environmental activism.
Trump Makes Strange Claim About Water Efficient Toilets: 'People Are Flushing Toilets 10 Times, 15 Times'
President Donald Trump mocked water-efficiency standards in new constructions last week. Trump said, "People are flushing toilets 10 times, 15 times, as opposed to once. They end up using more water. So, EPA is looking at that very strongly, at my suggestion." Trump asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a federal review of those standards since, he claimed with no evidence, that they are making bathrooms unusable and wasting water, as NBC News reported.
By Carey Gillam
Former Monsanto Chairman and CEO Hugh Grant will have to testify in person at a St. Louis-area trial set for January in litigation brought by a cancer-stricken woman who claims her disease was caused by exposure to the company's Roundup herbicide and that Monsanto covered up the risks instead of warning consumers.
A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.
"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."
The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.
My god, White Island volcano in New Zealand erupted today for first time since 2001. My family and I had gotten off it 20 minutes before, were waiting at our boat about to leave when we saw it. Boat ride home tending to people our boat rescued was indescribable. #whiteisland pic.twitter.com/QJwWi12Tvt— Michael Schade (@sch) December 9, 2019
Michael Schade / Twitter
At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.
The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.
Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.
"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."
Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.
Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.
"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.
"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."
The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.
Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.
- New Evidence Suggests Ancient Egypt Was Brought Down by ... ›
- Climate Change Could Set Off Volcanoes - EcoWatch ›
- U.S. Has 18 'Very High Threat' Volcanoes - EcoWatch ›
- Scientists Discover 91 Volcanoes Hidden Under Antarctic Ice Sheet ... ›