SOUTHBURY — “I just don’t understand what you have to do with Easterseals...” Dr. Annette Burton, director of the Easterseals Center for Better Hearing, hears that a lot. When people come to the full-service hearing center that recently moved into the new cinema complex at 690 Main St. South, many have preconceived notions about the organization that previously focused on helping handicapped children.
“Easterseals is a national organization with a mission to assist people with disabilities,” Dr. Burton said. “Most people don’t think of hearing loss as a disability, but it is. There’s a large prevalence of hearing loss in the U.S. and around the world.”
Easterseals was founded in 1919 as the National Society for Crippled Children. In 1934, the organization launched its first “Easter Seals” campaign, offering decorative stamps with a springtime design in exchange for donations.
In 1967, the colorful stamps with the lily logo had become so well-recognized that the organization changed its name to Easterseals.
Over time, the group’s mission expanded to include children and adults with a wide variety of disabilities and special needs.
Today, having just celebrated its 100th anniversary, Easterseals is the nation’s largest nonprofit healthcare organization, with 69 affiliates across the U.S.
Connecticut is home to three Easterseals affiliates, all independent entities.
“We are part of Easterseals of Greater Waterbury,” Dr. Burton explained. “They have programs like medical rehabilitation, job assistance and birth-to-three early intervention.
“Only about six Easterseals in the country have a hearing program,” she said. “We’re the only one in New England.”
Easterseals is not actually new to Southbury. For many years, the organization occupied a tiny space in Heritage Village with limited hours.
“We moved here because we wanted to expand,” Dr. Burton said. “We really saw a need.”
Easterseals Center for Better Hearing offers a full range of hearing services, including diagnostic hearing evaluations for all ages, state-of-the-art hearing aid technology for every budget and a variety of other hearing assistive technology.
They provide custom hearing protection for musicians and swimmers, as well as custom in-ear monitors for musicians.
“We’re much like any other audiology program,” said Dr. Burton. “We serve children, working adults and geriatric patients. Everyone doesn’t necessarily need a hearing aid.”
Dr. Burton is one of four board-certified audiologists affiliated with Easterseals Center for Better Hearing.
“All of us have a doctorate in audiology,” she said. “We provide high quality care, just like our colleagues [in commercial practice]. Our services are very comprehensive.”
The difference, she explained, is that Easterseals is a nonprofit organization with a charitable mission as well.
“A lot of people are confused about where they can go and who they can trust,” she said. “They see ads for $1,000 off or ‘buy-one-get-one.’ We don’t do any of that; we’re more about trying to provide services that our patients need.
“We’re not on commission,” she added. “It doesn’t matter whether we sell hearing aids or not.”
The center works with a number of different insurances, including Medicaid. Payment plans are offered, and some funds are available to assist people of low income, but the center is by no means limited to that demographic.
“Some people see the name ‘Easterseals’ and feel they can’t come here,” Dr. Burton said. “We have the same high level of technology that everyone else does, and for the most part, we can see everyone.
“We want people to feel comfortable coming here,” she said. “You don’t have to be low-income to use our services.”
Easterseals employs a mission-based model, wherein revenue is re-purposed to assist those in need.
“The nice thing is that the money we do make goes back into our charitable mission,” Dr. Burton said. “As we see more people not needing assistance, that helps us continue to support other people.”
Easterseals Center for Better Hearing includes two exam rooms and a sound room with state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment. The entire center is wheelchair-accessible.
The waiting room features a showcase of devices that can help with all levels of hearing impairment, mild to severe.
Dr. Burton demonstrated a caption phone, a device that can amplify the volume for the hearing impaired and also display the conversation on a digital screen. In Connecticut, caption phones are available free of charge to those with certification of hearing loss, a standard home telephone line and an internet connection.
There are products that help maintain harmony in a marriage by amplifying the volume of the TV for one viewer while not making it uncomfortably loud for another.
There are alarm clocks that include a vibrating device to be placed under the pillow and fob-style devices that let someone know if their doorbell is ringing or if a smoke alarm has been set off.
Using a grant from Comcast, Dr. Burton has installed a teleloop in the center, a magnetic coil that connects into a sound source. That sound can then be picked up by anyone in the vicinity wearing a standard hearing aid.
“Anyone wearing a hearing aid can walk into the room and connect to the teleloop,” she said. “It can be really useful in churches, movie theaters — anywhere where people with hearing aids are likely to be.”
Teleloop technology is not prohibitively expensive and grant monies are often available for such installations.
Easterseals Center for Better Hearing also has offices in Waterbury and Meriden. The Southbury location is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; and from 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesday.
Appointments in Southbury can be made by calling 203-262-1851; in Waterbury the number is 203-754-5141. Some insurances may require physician referrals.
Those who think they might have a hearing problem are invited to visit one of the three centers or take a screening questionaire at www.betterhearingct.com.