A 150-mile road trip once stood between Josie Burns and her therapy sessions. Now, it's a computer connection.
The 8-year-old is hearing-impaired and attends therapy via ihear, an online program that allows her to video-chat with Hearts for Hearing therapist Darcy Stowe.
Josie lives 30 miles east of Durant and was making the trip to Oklahoma City with her family, sometimes several times a week.
Josie was identified with hearing loss when she was 1 year old and has attended various Hearts for Hearing therapy programs in the city ever since.
“I practically raised my babies on the road, in order to get Josie where she needed to be,” Jill Burns, Josie's mother, said.
Hearts for Hearing is a hearing health program for children and adults whose main goal is to provide funding for the initial set of hearing aids for all deaf or hard-of-hearing children in Oklahoma.
They also provide continued therapy.
The organization is beta testing the ihear technology for St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis. The testing began July 1 and will continue for three years.
“It's great because we can provide ihear therapy to families who for some reason or another can't get here,” said Joanna Smith, executive director of Hearts for Hearing. “A lot of times it's distance. A lot of times it's that they can't take off work.”
Hearts for Hearing's ihear program is funded by a grant from Sarkeys Foundation and the Oklahoma City Community Foundation.
The program is replacing Skype, one tool the organization has used to reach patients in rural Oklahoma communities.
Smith, a speech-language pathologist and certified auditory-verbal therapist, said therapists often had issues with the quality of Skype connections, especially sound quality.
“The sound quality was awful and contradicted what we were trying to accomplish,” said Darcy Stowe, a speech language pathologist and certified auditory verbal therapist at Hearts for Hearing.
Ihear also is compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, making it more secure against hackers, Smith said.
Ihear allows therapists to share documents with the children on a computer screen and also provides a digital whiteboard that allows children and therapists to draw together.
The program requires a parent be present with their child during sessions so that parents learn to coach their children.
“Every session we have, we are coaching the parents to do the therapy at home,” Smith said. “Ihear is very conducive to the therapy we already try to do.”
Debby Hubanks has been teaching the hearing and visually impaired in Oklahoma for 30 years. She's currently an educational consultant for Elk City Public Schools and said ihear is a wonderful program for rural Oklahoma.
“It's a real hardship for these young families,” Hubanks said. “They do what they can for their children.”
Smith believes Hearts for Hearing is the best kept secret in Oklahoma.
“We're really gatekeepers of hope for families,” Smith said. “Ihear is just another window of hope.”