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Hearing, homelessness, and being heard

March, 3 2021

Dr Lisa Seerup grew up in Flint, Michigan – a city consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous in the United States. Understandably, she vowed to get as far away from Flint as possible. Since then she has worked in six different countries. For the past 10 years Lisa has been a private practice audiologist and Hearing Association Wellington’s Board President. That work also led her to volunteering with our partner charity, DCM, to provide ear health services for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

I grew up with a single mom on a benefit. Despite many unfortunate events, there was also love, laughter, boisterous debates and books. Even though we had it tough, I always had my Kuia (Grandmother).

My Kuia dropped out of school when her father was killed in a farming accident. She needed to support her 6 younger siblings. Leaving school was always a source of shame to her so she went back to college (high school) after she retired. I got to go to school with my Kuia! 

In history class, she often argued with the teacher over the accuracy or bias of the text books. She had been there, back in the day, and knew what it was like. It made me question what we read, and to verify information. My Kuia was the oldest student ever to graduate from that school. I was the youngest. We walked proudly, hand in hand, across the stage together to get our diplomas. We even made the front page of the newspaper!

Another important lesson I learned was from filmmaker and activist, Michael Moore.  Michael was also from Flint and I volunteered at his first magazine, The Village Voice. I did research for articles as well as photocopying, filing, and distributing the magazine. I learned that one person can fight for things and make a difference regardless of how big the corporation is.

There was a cute deaf boy in my neighbourhood. He complained that none of the audiologists he saw could sign. To impress him, I learned sign language and became a registered American Sign Language interpreter. It paid well, but the work was not always consistent. 

I needed something that had good job security and paid well because I was tired of being poor. There really are only so many noodles you can eat.

I decided to study Speech and Hearing Science at the University of Michigan. University is very expensive in the United States. I was granted a scholarship from the Australian Government provided I worked in rural health after graduation. I got a job working in a rehab centre at night so I didn’t have to pay for an apartment. I slept in my car when I wasn’t at work. 

After graduating with a Masters of Audiology I did an internship with the Army then headed to work in Australia with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. I also worked in Switzerland and Argentina and Mexico.

After finishing a three year job with a hearing aid manufacturer in Denmark I thought it would be nice to have English as my first language again. With an Australian passport, there are no immigration barriers to living and working in New Zealand. Audiology is a non-registered profession here so I could work from day one. New Zealand was supposed to be a temporary stop for me but I met my husband and here I am 10 years later.

Audiology is my safe place. I am empowered, confident and knowledgeable. I know that I can make a difference and that what I do is important. Homelessness is scary because in reality it could be any one of us. 

It was Michelle Scott from DCM who initially approached Hearing Association Wellington. Michelle knew that the Māori population have higher rates of ear and hearing problems. DCM does a great job of looking beyond the usual to see what other factors might be contributing to a person not meeting their potential.

Hearing issues have a causative impact on a person’s life. No other New Zealand programme for people who are homeless has incorporated audiology services into their support network. I really applaud DCM for the foresight.

Hearing issues add a barrier for people who do not need any more barriers in their path. The more things on your plate – the more hearing affects you. If you put that into context of our most vulnerable, each straw we place on them is heavier and more burdensome. Hearing is not just a straw, it can be a tree! Hearing Association Wellington hopes that we can be one straw that is removed that allows that person to succeed. If not us, then DCM looks for what other barriers can be removed or supports put in place.

On average, hearing loss affects 1 in 4 New Zealanders, but the numbers are much higher among DCM’s taumai (the people they support). When taumai go for interviews and they get an answer wrong, it is not usually attributed to hearing problems. More often it can be attributed to mental capacity or drugs.

Hearing is all about communication, or in the case of the hearing impaired – miscommunication. This is a problem with every relationship but in vulnerable persons, it is exacerbated. It makes you wonder how much hearing loss contributes to homelessness.

Initially, taumai would come into the Hearing Association and nurses would remove ear wax. That model didn't work because we hadn't built any trust.  Having set appointment times also made things difficult. We also realised that ear wax removal only scratched the surface. To be effective, we needed to meet people in their space to provide a more comprehensive service. We expanded the programme to include hearing testing and fitting brand new, state of the art hearing aids via the Government subsidy. It’s not just about providing equipment or a service; it’s about providing the care that enables people to succeed.

One busy morning at DCM, it was heading towards afternoon and I had not taken a break. One of the taumai made me lunch. This soft voice offered me kai. ‘Here, miss – eat. Take care of yourself.’  Something I am not always good at.

That little gesture of kindness made me refocus on the important things. Kai, breathing, just a minute connecting with a person. Little things can make a big impact. It’s the same philosophy behind One Percent Collective.

As told to Ben Woodward. Image by Pat Shepherd. Story taken from:

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