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Vision, Hearing Problems Add More Stress to Families


Eryka Ehling felt lucky. Her 4-year-old daughter didn’t need a hearing aid after all.

The news followed several weeks of anxiety after 4-year-old Alexis failed a hearing screening at her Head Start center last fall. Ehling, a single mom who recently moved back to Michigan, sacrificed a much-needed workday’s pay to bring her daughter into the Kent County Health Department for a secondary screening — which proved her daughter’s ears were just fine.

“We just don’t have much right now, certainly no insurance,” Ehling said, clearly relieved her daughter was OK. “The schools have been very helpful by putting us in touch with the resources we need.”

Ehling’s daughter is just one of many thousands of Kent County school-age children the health department screens annually for possible hearing and vision problems. The screenings are required by state law periodically throughout a child’s school career.

But screenings merely reveal problems, they don’t fix them. And for impoverished families, just taking time off from work is a challenge.

“If they can’t see the board, they can’t read.” — Peg Betzinger, Cherry Health

Chris Buczek, a registered nurse who supervises the health department’s hearing and vision screening program, said of the 90,000 children screened annually, 788 sought documented follow-up for hearing problems and 4,388 for vision problems last year. However, a University of Michigan study found that approximately 25 percent of the children statewide who were referred for follow-up care never received it. So it’s likely many Kent County children didn’t, either.

“Part of the problem is when there is poverty, and we can assume a family has Medicaid to help pay for medical expenses,” Buczek said. “But even with kids who have Medicaid, what I see happening is that families don’t have the ability to take time off work to do something like go to a medical appointment. There’s a broader access to care issue here.”

Where to Go for Help

Alexis Ehling, 4, receiving a follow-up hearing screening at the Kent County Health Department
Alexis Ehling, 4, receiving a follow-up hearing screening at the Kent County Health Department

There are places economically disadvantaged people can get help, like Cherry Health, a nonprofit health-services provider for Kent, Barry, Montcalm and Wayne counties. Peg Betzinger, Cherry Health’s director of school-linked health programs, said her clinicians saw about 3,300 kids last year in various schools and delivered about 1,000 pairs of glasses, many at reduced or no charge to families.

Betzinger said many children’s vision issues go undiagnosed because it seems they can see well enough. Ever go to the eye doctor and not realize how bad your vision is until they give you proper corrective lenses? These kids don’t usually have that experience.

“A lot of parents don’t necessarily know their child has a vision problem until their child gets a comprehensive dilated eye exam,” Betzinger said. “I just don’t think that’s part of the normal routine or awareness for most people.

“If they can’t see the board, they can’t read,” she added. “The really sad thing is that some eye diseases can be corrected if they’re caught early enough, and others do permanent damage if they’re not.”

Betzinger said the average cost of an eye exam is about $107 and the average cost of glasses is about $170. Renee’ Mika, a pediatric optometrist with Cherry Health, said she and her crew spend about 45 minutes to an hour with each of the 25 or so children they see at each site they visit.

“For any disability area, early detection is critical.” — Laura LaMore, Grand Rapids Public Schools

Mika said about a fourth of the kids seen have some vision problem. She and her team diagnose patients the day of exams and deliver glasses if needed back to their school in about a month. For about 80 percent of those needing corrective lenses, it’s their first pair of glasses, Mika said.

“Our goal is to improve access for the kids who need it most,” Mika said. “It’s the most disabling condition in childhood. And for the kids who are uninsured – which is about 20 percent or 30 percent of the kids we see – those kids are three times more likely to go without glasses.”

Kent School Services Network, a program that provides in-school medical and social services, has helped some students get free glasses. For instance, KSSN partnered with optometrist Dr. Troy LeBaron to provide free eye exams and glasses for students at East Kentwood High School and Middle School.

Where to Get Help

If you think your child may have vision or hearing problems, several agencies can help. They include:

  • Kent County Health Department’s vision and hearing screening program

  • Cherry Health, a nonprofit providing services to families regardless of their income or insurance status

  • Kent School Services Network, which provides in-school medical and social services to nearly 30 schools in eight Kent ISD school districts

  • The special education program of your child’s local school district

The Earlier, the Better

While the impact on students of being unable to hear a teacher or see instructional materials may be obvious, the real trick is that solutions can be extremely specialized, said Laura LaMore, executive director of special education for Grand Rapids Public Schools. Some students’ problems may be resolved with simple fixes like moving their seat closer to a teacher, but others require much more, LaMore said.

“Some students with a minimal accommodation may be able to fly, while others may need a far more significant accommodation just to keep up with their peers,” LaMore said. “Some kids may have other barriers; they may have been dealing with their issue for years which has put them further behind.”

Early detection offered through the county screening programs and Cherry Health can save a student from struggling to catch up and save school districts expensive specialized resources, she said.

“For any disability area, early detection is critical,” she added. “When a kid starts falling behind, the further along they get in school the more quickly information starts coming at them. Education really shifts gears in about third or fourth grade, when we say students really should be more proficient in a subject area.”

If a student has a visual impairment that can be corrected with lenses or glasses, she likely doesn’t need specialized instruction, LaMore said. That kind of instruction is extremely costly for school districts because they have to buy curriculum-based materials for individual students. Those typically can’t be used again, because the materials are licensed and frequently outdated before the next student who needs them comes along.

“Once we have students who are identified, or for whom we’re working to make those accommodations, they are students who take more time and talent,” LaMore added. “Districts invest those resources because we invest in every learner equally.”

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