You’ve heard the old saying, “What the world needs is a good 5-cent cigar.” Wrong! What the world really needs are inexpensive, environmentally friendly, and widely accessible hearing aids, which do so much more for the quality of life than a smelly, toxic cigar.
The problem is that while many consumers in wealthy countries can afford to buy at least basic model hearing aids, for millions of people in the developing nations – and, unfortunately, for many in the United States as well – hearing aids remain an out-of-reach luxury.
Howard Weinstein knows it and is pro-actively trying to solve this problem. But before we introduce this amazing man to you, let’s look at some disturbing statistics.
Numbers don’t lie
According to World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 278 million people worldwide are affected by moderate to severe bilateral hearing loss. Two-thirds of these people live in developing countries and most would benefit from hearing aids. WHO estimates that more than 30 million hearing aids are needed annually in those nations, together with services and staff to fit them, but current annual provision is less than 1 million. That is an alarming statistic and a sad reflection on how health concerns of people in poorer nations are neglected by the world community.
But wait, there is more.
Equally disturbing is the fact that in the United States, which certainly doesn’t fall under the category of a “developing” nation, many of the approximately 36 million persons with hearing los have no access to low-cost hearing aids.That data comes out of a working group on Accessible and Affordable Hearing Health Care for Adults with Mild to Moderate Hearing Loss, which was recently sponsored by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders/National Institutes of Health (NIDCD/NIH).
“Hearing loss is a public health issue and is among the leading public health concerns,” the study noted. “Approximately 17 percent of American adults report some degree of hearing loss. Yet, fewer than 20 percent of those who require intervention and treatment seek help for their condition.”
At least part of the reason may be that the average cost of a hearing aid ranges from about $1,000 to $4,000. Taking into account that neither Medicare nor most private insurers cover the cost, millions of people in this country can’t afford this much-needed treatment.
That is a truly troubling fact, but it’s no news to Howard Weinstein. Bringing affordable, user-friendly, and ecological hearing aids to those who need them the most is his life’s mission.
Solar power – clean and cheap
|Solar Ear's rechargable open-fit hearing aid|
Sun provides us with millions of kilowatts of clean, safe, pollution-free, and cheap energy. And that’s the cornerstone of Weinstein’s work.
Fourteen years ago, after Weinstein's daughter passed away, he joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to a solar-powered hearing aid project in Botswana, which today is known as Godisa Technologies. With no products, staff or funding, Weinstein eventually raised enough cash and found technological expertise to develop an analog solar-powered hearing aid costing $100--a fifth of the price of standard models. The “Solar Ear” device comes with $1 rechargeable batteries that last up to three years. An accompanying charger can either get power from the sun or a wall outlet.
Weinstein hopes that this simple yet effective concept will change the lives of millions of people worldwide.
An award-winning invention
Currently, Weinstein, a former plumber from Montreal, is working on bringing a digital version of the solar-powered hearing aid to Brazil. Botswanans who worked on the original project have come to Brazil to teach locals how to make the hearing aids, which will be sold throughout Latin America for $125. To date, Weinstein has sold 10,000 rechargeable hearing aids, 20,000 solar chargers, and over 40,000 rechargeable hearing aid batteries to 31 countries – a big success considering that he started out with nothing.
In fact, the Solar Aid concept recently won Weinstein the Tech Award Laureate title, an international program that honors innovators who are applying technology to benefit humanity. In 2008, he was awarded the Humanitarian Award from the American Academy of Audiology.
“The key to our success is that our workers are deaf,” Weinstein tells Healthy Hearing. “They are able to manufacture at a world-class level, in part because they are deaf. People who are deaf and speak in sign language have better hand-eye coordination than hearing people. We need this special ability to micro-solder the tiny components for a hearing aid.”
Weinstein’s next step is to take Solar Aid to Jordan, allowing him to reach the entire Middle East, followed by China and India. “Our goal is to help people, especially children, get a low-cost hearing aid so that they can develop speech, communicate better, and be able to go to a public school,” he says. “We believe that you can improve the wealth of these nations and break the cycle of poverty of its population through education.”
|Solar Ear's solar hearing aid battery charger|
News worth hearing
What about the United States, where, according to the NIDCD/NIH report, accessibility to affordable hearing aids is a major issue?
“We may, within the next two years, be working with an NGO in Arizona who hires and empowers Native American youths who are deaf,” Weinstein notes. “They would be manufacturing the products for distribution in the United States.”
That will come as a welcome news to those who care not only about the cost of hearing aids, but also about the impact of non-rechargeable batteries on the environment – if not properly recycled, hazardous components such as zinc and mercury may end up in the waterways or in a landfill, endangering our health.
Says Weinstein: “Globally, everyone who has a behind-the-ear aid could use a solar charger and rechargeable batteries today and not only save money, but also help the environment as over 200 million zinc air batteries are thrown out every year.”
To learn more about solar powered hearing aids visit Solar Ear.