Healthy Hearing conversation | Madeline Bennett, founder of Otogear
You’re in a restaurant and the print on the menu is too small. What do you do? If you’re like most folks, you pull a pair of readers out of your pocket and peruse without a second thought. Now imagine you’re at a concert hall and the room fills with music so loud you can’t hear the person sitting next to you when they speak. Do you pop in a pair of earplugs to mitigate the noise and potential damage it’s causing your hearing? According to the statistics on noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) reported by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), probably not. Data from a hearing study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that as many as 40 million adults have hearing loss in one or both ears related to loud exposure to noise.
This type of hearing loss is 100% preventable, so why don’t Americans do more to protect themselves against it? And if wearing a pair of glasses is socially acceptable, why wouldn’t wearing a pair of earplugs be too? We may never understand why these social stigmas shape our behavior, but we can take heart knowing entrepreneurs like Madeline Bennett are working to change them.
Inspiration sparks a new business
When an instructor in her Introduction to Hearing Disorders course at the University of Washington gave the class a final assignment of solving the noise induced hearing loss epidemic, Bennett noticed everyone else was busy creating public service announcements about hearing preservation.
“I realized that no matter what a PSA says, there’s still going to be a negative perception with hearing protection,” she said. “It’s not cool. It makes you look like you’re not a true fan and that’s when I realized you’ve gotta make it fun or fashionable to wear hearing protection.”
The result? Bennett created Otogear, a decorative earplug attachment which can be customized according to your personality or mood. Her first prototype was ready by the time the assignment was due, and her instructor was so impressed, she encouraged her to keep going. The process helped her realize how much she loved running her own business, so instead of pursuing a career as an audiologist, Bennett decided to focus her efforts on making Otogear a viable product.
Like wearing hearing protection, for example. “I’m always wearing Otogears when I go out,” Bennett said. “A lot of people believe hearing protection cuts everything out, which isn’t the case. It just drops the volume down. With Otogear and the ear plugs we use, it brings the volume down to a comfortable level. At the end of the concert, your ears aren’t ringing but you were still able to enjoy the music.”
A vision for a big future
Bennett describes her business as “bootstrapped and super scrappy,” an endeavor self-funded by family and friends and propelled by her uber-entrepreneurial spirit. Her vision is to ultimately see Otogear earplugs standard issue at major concert and sporting venues, perhaps even complimentary with the purchase of tickets. Plans to develop high fidelity earplugs for musicians are also on the horizon as well as a light-up variety of attachments in the next five years. The eco-friendly products are made in the United States from recycled plastics. The ear plugs they use reduce noise levels by 26 decibels (dB) and meet OSHA, NIOSH and MHSA safety standards.
“Education is a big part of our mission in trying to get Otogear out there and people protecting their ears,” she said. “There will always be the die-hard fans who like the ringing in their ears after the concert, but there are fans that want hearing protection and a lot of venues don’t provide it.”
Bennett started her first nonprofit as a teenager and is still passionate about giving back. “I always like have social cause connected to my projects,” she said. “I want to give back to communities around me.” Currently, she is donating five percent of profits from OTOGREEN Succulent Dream design to the World Wildlife Fund. Additionally, Otogear partners frequently with the Hearing Loss Association of America.
Information about creating customized Otogear for special events is available on their website.
If you've already spent too many years attending loud concerts, fireworks displays or air shows with unprotected ears, you may already have some hearing loss. Otogear can keep it from getting worse, but to make the most of your existing hearing, visit a hearing care professional in our extensive directory of consumer-reviewed clinics.