Hearing and Speech Foundation team returns from Croatia symposium charged to push forward

John Berry poses inside the anechoic chamber - a foam-padded anti-vibration room - where tests are run that show what frequencies, intensities and tonality of words register in the eardrum.

Photo by Leslie Karnowski

John Berry poses inside the anechoic chamber - a foam-padded anti-vibration room - where tests are run that show what frequencies, intensities and tonality of words register in the eardrum.

Tony Cooper, Paul Rook and John Berry in Croatia at an international symposium on research being done to help the hearing impaired.

Tony Cooper, Paul Rook and John Berry in Croatia at an international symposium on research being done to help the hearing impaired.

It’s easier to see where you stand from a distance. That’s what representatives of the Hearing and Speech Foundation found when they traveled to Zagreb, Croatia, recently for a symposium.

“What I experienced is that we are in a position to become an international training center, an international research center,” says John Berry, chief executive officer and co-founder of the Hearing and Speech Foundation, based in Maryville.

“The image of our foundation has been one of providing care for people who can’t afford hearing aids or therapy. That is just a small part of our purpose, and I think it became very clear we can become an international training and research center for the verbotonal method.”

The verbotonal method is the basic philosophy at Zagreb’s SUVAG Center, the central training facility for hundreds of clinics throughout the world. For the symposium celebrating the 50th anniversary of the center, about 200 people from eight countries gathered in Zagreb to hear presentations on research being done to help the hearing impaired. The delegation from the Hearing and Speech Foundation was composed of four employees and a board member.

SUVAG founder Petar Guberina based the verbotonal method on his theory that “you could train the brain to perceive all speech frequencies through whatever little residual hearing (the hearing-impaired person) had,” says Berry, “and we know that to be true today.”

Berry and his team at the Hearing and Speech Foundation are doing research that provides specifics for those employing the verbotonal method. At the symposium, Berry and researchers Tony Cooper and Paul Rook presented papers on the foundation’s work.

“We are trying to measure exactly what the brain is using right now so that we can make sure that the brain’s getting that through whatever type of hearing aid we develop,” says Berry. “Our philosophy is not to amplify where you don’t have hearing to compensate, but to amplify the good hearing, the residual hearing, and train the brain to decode all the information.”

He was pleased with their reception at the symposium.

“We could not have been more highly accepted,” he says. “We are just excited about the results we’ve gotten and hope to improve the fitting of hearing aids on children and adults with this data.”

The foundation has built an anechoic chamber - a foam-padded anti-vibration room - to run tests that show what frequencies, intensities and tonality words register in the eardrum.

“We’re a private clinic that’s acting like a major research facility here,” says Cooper, a statistician. “We’ve got visions of maybe doing some of the brain-scan stuff and actually figuring out what enters the brain - way, way down the road.”

Even if some of the foundation’s plans are still in the dreaming stage, the research being done there seems to be singular.

“There’s a lot of data on experience, but none on the physics,” says Cooper. “I’ve read quite a number of journals; I’ve seen very little where people are doing this. I think other people are still working on the experience side.”

The trip to Zagreb supported that conclusion.

“One of the reasons we went to Zagreb is to see what other researchers in the world were doing in measuring the acoustics of speech in the ear canal,” says Berry. “We seem to be the only people doing it anywhere, and we don’t know of any other private clinic, private foundation in the United States that has designed an anechoic chamber to look at what acoustics in speech the brain is truly using.”

The symposium covered useful and interesting territory, he says.

“A lot of the presentations were focused on different types of therapy procedures, working with children,” he says. “There were a lot of papers on working with cochlear-implant patients for auditory training. There were programs showing how they followed the children into the school system to be integrated.

“I honestly don’t remember any (other) papers that were done on measuring the acoustics of speech in the process of fitting hearing aids. There were papers on different tests that were used that have been developed to measure the effect of the functioning of a patient, a lot of which we already incorporate and a lot of which we’ll try to see if it will improve what we’re doing.”

The foundation already is on the front lines of improving life for hearing-impaired persons in this region and beyond.

“We’ve served thousands of indigent children and adults for hearing aids here in 27 counties of East Tennessee,” says Berry. “We’ve worked with between 400 and 500 children at schools for the deaf in Jamaica.

“We have taken many severe to profoundly deaf children on and trained them to perceive speech and function as normal hearing and speaking people after we correct their audio-perceptive problems.”

Berry, who worked at a school for the deaf to pay his way through the University of Texas at Austin as an undergraduate, sees value in other approaches to helping the hearing impaired.

“There are a lot of good programs with different emphases,” he says. “There are many different forms of sign language or finger spelling that are used to help the hearing-impaired communicate. There are institutions that focus on lip-reading or oral therapy.

“Our primary purpose is to develop the highest level of auditory training. These other people do what they do well. We feel that the auditory channel is crucial no matter what method you use, and we would like to be able to, no matter what method is used, provide the highest level of auditory input to the hearing-impaired person.

“We do believe you can train most people to function auditorially. This can be a long, slow process. The concept of cochlear implants proved that auditory training is essential. When you do a cochlear implant, you basically are stimulating the inner hair cells, which basically send a pattern to the brain, and that pattern, we believe, is what all of us use in our everyday communication. And that pattern, or rhythm and intonation of the language is what truly carries the meaning.

“If I said, ‘It’s raining outside!’ or I said, ‘It’s raining outside.’ - two different meanings, same linguistic structure. So we believe the pattern is the carrier of the emotional meaning, which is the essential ingredient of communication.”

The ultimate goal for all the researchers is to keep hearing-impaired persons from being excluded.

“If possible, we would love to include each and every kid in the hearing world,” says Cooper. “If they’re in the signing world, they’re depending on other people knowing how to sign. For the kids we can make this work for, this is huge; this is totally important.”

Berry first visited SUVAG in Zagreb in 1971, 10 years before he launched the foundation, and has traveled there 10 times through the years. But he still made time for his team to get to know the city a little bit.

“We arrived in Zagreb at noon on Monday, and by 1:30 in the afternoon we were walking the whole city,” he says. “We went to the opera house, went to some museums, went up to the old city and went through a three-hour Pompeii exhibit. We went to (sculptor Ivan) Mestrovic’s museum. We ate at some fabulous restaurants.

“We toured the center for a day. Then to start the symposium off, they had a dance/play/musical with several hundred children with auditory-perceptual problems who spoke in five languages. The first thing that got me impressed with Zagreb at the SUVAG center in 1971 was that the graduates of the SUVAG center, profoundly deaf, spoke English as a second language. That clearly helped me make a decision that this was an important thing to dedicate my work life to.”

In addition to Berry, Cooper and Rook, foundation executive director Amanda Womac and board member Roma Renfro also were in the delegation that traveled to Zagreb.

“I was there … to make connections with other directors of SUVAG centers across the globe and to see the Polyclinic SUVAG, the main clinic diagnostic area and preschool program that they have in Croatia,” said Womac. “That way, I could get a more comprehensive understanding of the vision that John has for the Hearing and Speech Foundation in terms of our training program and how we will apply this verbotonal method. And that was pretty amazing.”

Berry believes attending the symposium in Zagreb helped clarify the big picture.

“I think the Croatian trip showed the people that went with us the vision of a large institute that we want to build in Blount County,” he says. “It showed the people the results that the method has on different types of communication disorders. It helped us understand our place in the research that’s being done and that we have a tremendous amount to offer.

“It validated with these people from all over the world there that this is an accepted, viable way to help train auditory perception. It helped us connect with people we want to work with in Russia, France, Spain, Italy, Croatia and Japan.”

The foundation recently received a grant from the National Institutes for Health to assist respected researcher Dr. Harry Levin on a project to design and build more effective hearing aids at a lower cost. But the nonprofit foundation’s current work and its plans for future programs need support.

“We are always open to donations because we do provide at no cost amplification for 50 people a month,” says Berry. “We have our project in Jamaica; it costs us $50,000 a year to take care of all services we provide down there.”

In addition to financial support, Womac says, the public can help the foundation by donating used hearing aids for a recycling program.

“We can use old, broken aids or aids that people just have lying around in their drawers,” she says. “If they’re in good enough shape, we can have them refurbished and use them for our hearing-aid assistance clients.

“Others that cannot be refurbished we send back to the manufacturer and have them recycled and used for parts, and we get credits for that recycling process for new aid purchases. We saved $20,000 in the first year on hearing-aid costs, so the program has really, really helped us be able to serve more clients in East Tennessee.”

The foundation also welcomes the public’s involvement on fundraising projects such as its tailgate party and fashion shows.

“We’re always looking for volunteers to help with events and fundraising on a community level,” says Womac.

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