This article is contributed in support of Doppler Labs.
In the United States, hearing aids cost upwards of $5,000 a pair and typically aren’t covered by insurance providers. In an effort to lower costs and provide over-the-counter options that would be more accessible to individuals with hearing loss, the FDA is currently reexamining the entire system for hearing aid sales to determine if regulations should be relaxed.
The FDA recently called on consumers to submit personal testimonies on this issue and asked individuals directly affected by the current regulatory landscape to share their stories.
In support of these industry changes, Doppler Labs—with the help of KR Liu, the company’s Director of Accessibility and Advocacy—has been advocating along with other leading technology companies to not only give unrepresented individuals a voice, but also to push the FDA to offer more options to consumers.
In her letter to the FDA below, KR shares her personal experience living with hearing loss, how it has shaped her career in the tech industry, and some of the opportunities for technology companies to innovate in the hearing health space.
My career has spanned both large consumer tech companies and early-stage startups (Speck Products, SOL Republic, Pebble, Doppler Labs). During this time, I’ve held various executive positions leading both marketing and sales strategy. I’ve launched some of the most disruptive hardware lifestyle tech brands on the market, from iPhone cases, portable power, wireless headphones and speakers, smartwatches, and now, augmented audio devices.
And I’ve done all of this in spite of the fact that I’ve had severe hearing loss most of my life. That’s not to say that my career success came easy, though. Working in sales, where you’re spending your day-to-day on the phone or leading meetings, posed many challenges. For 10 years, I suffered with only wearing one hearing aid because I couldn’t afford a second pair (even though my hearing loss is severe enough to require two.) Listening, reading lips, and trying to keep up with conversations—something we’re quick to take for granted—was physically and emotionally exhausting. Yet, I hid my hearing loss because I didn’t want to be treated differently at work.
At one point, as a young adult living in Silicon Valley, I had to make the difficult choice between paying my rent or buying hearing aids. I ended up draining my savings to replace a broken hearing aid that was only two years old, simply because it was already discontinued and therefore couldn’t be repaired. It took three years for me to recover from that experience financially. Something as indispensable as hearing aids—which cost upwards of five thousand dollars (and that’s just for the basic ones)—should be as accessible and, frankly, affordable as a smartphone.
At one point, as a young adult living in Silicon Valley, I had to make the difficult choice between paying my rent or buying hearing aids.
1.1 billion teenagers and young adults are at risk of hearing loss, according to the World Health Organization. We can’t ignore this any longer, and we can’t afford to be ignorant in assuming that this only affects an aging population, either. Considering how many people have hearing loss, or are at risk, it’s astonishing to see that innovation in this space has been painfully stagnant. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.
Consumer technology companies could help change the status quo—in a big way. However, for the most part, they’ve understandably been conservative because their hands are tied by existing rules and regulations. Consider how their involvement might change the stigma around what it means to have hearing loss; how much faster we could innovate and bring products to market; how we might be able to offer products at accessible price points for millions of consumers with mild to moderate hearing loss.
For years I was uncomfortable talking about my hearing loss. But now, I proudly advocate for the hard of hearing community and push for innovation in hearing accessibility.
We’re already starting to see the tide turn. Last October, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued a report in support of the need for regulatory changes to promote innovation in hearing technologies, which immediately jump started a national conversation about the issues affecting our community. And in the tech space, some of the major smartwatch players have collaborated to develop a hearing control app that’s compatible with Starkey’s Halo hearing aids. This kind of collaboration is just the tip of the iceberg. The consumer electronics industry has the resources, the talent, and the know-how to innovate hearing technologies—it’s time we handed over the reins.
My lifelong mission is to continue to be a strong advocate for products that enhance the way we hear the world.
If the ability to access over-the-counter technology doesn’t change, many young adults will not be able to afford the more than $5,000 hearing aids—or necessarily even want to wear one because of the associated stigma. I don’t want anyone to suffer financially or socially, just because current regulation allows the hearing aid companies to monopolize this space.
My lifelong mission is to continue to be a strong advocate for products that enhance the way we hear the world. I never want anyone to struggle the way I grew up, just because of a disability or challenge that they face. There’s no doubt in my mind that technology can help people with hearing issues gain confidence in all of their activities.
To the FDA, I implore you to set a new precedent. Open the market so that these consumer electronic companies can introduce over-the-counter, innovative, and socially acceptable lifestyle brands. Consider people like me, who have struggled with hearing loss their entire life. Consider the 1.1 billion young adults who don’t even know yet that they’re at risk. There has to be a better, more affordable path forward to expand the options available to consumers. It’s our only chance toward living a better quality life.
KR has been recognized by the industry and awarded Silicon Valley's Top 40 Under 40, 2015 Women on the Move by Women's Business Journal, and received a U.S. Congressional Award for her advocacy work in hearing health and technology. Her letter is a powerful example of how we can push for change by sharing our stories and raising our voices.
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