Speech pathology graduate students help Special Olympians hear more clearly

Nearly 200 of Maine’s Special Olympics athletes received free hearing screenings on June 9 thanks to 18 University of Maine speech pathology graduate students.

Compared to the general population, people with intellectual or developmental disabilities are more likely to experience hearing loss or ear problems, and most are cases undetected or under-treated prior to these screenings, according to Amy Booth, a clinical faculty member and audiologist at UMaine.

“Hearing loss can have a negative impact on the quality of one’s communication ability. This screening detects potential hearing loss and we can then make an appropriate referral to a practitioner near the athlete to receive follow-up care,” said Booth.

The screenings advance audiologists’ understanding and awareness of hearing concerns among patients with special needs. The data collected at this event will be added to the world’s largest confidential health database focused on individuals with intellectual disabilities.

The experience also gave the student volunteers an opportunity to develop their clinical and triage skills.

“I loved having the opportunity to meet all of the wonderful athletes who came to the Healthy Hearing event and it was so motivating knowing that we were helping to make a difference and provide them with information concerning their health,” said Ashley Green, a graduate student in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders.

From 2014–24, the Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates the speech pathology and audiology field will grow 21 percent — three times the national average for job growth overall. In states with rapidly aging populations like Maine, the demand may become even more critical. UMaine is home to the state’s only undergraduate major in speech-language pathology and audiology and Maine’s only accredited master’s program that leads to national certification in speech-language pathology.

The students were supervised by Booth and audiologists Mary Ellen Toothaker of Audiology Center of Maine in Ellsworth, and Michael Barnes of Waldo County General Hospital. The screenings were offered as a part of the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program.