Hearing and Vision Screening at School
Toronto Foundation for Student Success
Mobile health clinics provide students with vision and hearing aids and greater promise for academic success
A little girl received her free eye glasses this fall at a school in Scarborough. Before placing the glasses on the child, the optician asked, “What do you see out the window?” The little girl replied, “I see a tree.” After fitting her glasses, the optician asked, “Now, what do you see?” The little girl almost shrieked, “Oh! I see leaves and their different colours! I see the tree trunk! And, oh, I see a bird. Look! I see a bird in that tree!” She promptly hugged the optician and the school community support worker, and began to dance!
One six-year-old boy stopped at the doorway of the hearing screening room, “Do my parents have to pay for this?” he said with his hands up in front of him in a “stop” gesture. “No? Well, okay then, I’ll sit in your chair.”
(Toronto Foundation for Student Success)
Families in high needs neighbourhoods, many of them newcomers, often find it difficult to access health care for their children. Barriers include a lack of medical insurance coverage, lack of accessible transportation, inability for parents to take time off from work, lack of family financial resources to follow interventions prescribed by health care providers, and a lack of confidence in navigating the health care system due to cultural and language barriers.
This means many children may be going to school with undiagnosed and untreated health issues that prevent them from learning to the best of their ability.
The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is the largest school board in Canada, serving approximately 260,000 elementary and secondary students; 75 languages are represented in approximately 600 schools. Teachers, principals and parents had already raised concerns about the pressing need to help students who did not have access to health care resources that directly impacted their school day. This led to the establishment of a pilot project which checked the eyesight and hearing of students in the TDSB’s Parenting and Family Literacy Centres.
Through the TDSB’s charitable foundation, Toronto Foundation for Student Success (TFSS), financial and in-kind supports were secured from philanthropists and private institutions to allow the program, now called the Sprott Asset Management Gift of Sight and Sound, to be expanded to help tens of thousands of students in low-income communities. Parents are notified that their child has been identified as having a possible vision or hearing problem to facilitate further examination by a specialist. Follow up procedures are set up so students can receive appropriate care and be given free glasses and hearing aids as required.
Critical to the program’s success is the use of on site clinics at individual schools. At first, students and families were expected to obtain further services, eye wear and hearing devices on their own, but only 50% obtained the appropriate follow-up. In the case of visiting specialists such as audiologists, fewer than 10% of families referred made it the downtown clinic due to transportation and language barriers. The introduction of extra clinics in schools has resulted in 90% of children receiving the eye glasses and hearing aids they require.
“This is a fantastic initiative to help level the playing field for our inner city children in order to help them reach their full potential,” explains one teacher. “Students have access to formal eye exams and the opportunity to receive a free pair of glasses. Parents are grateful for the early detection and feel that their child’s medical needs are supported. They also are learning to navigate the Canadian health system.”
Accreditation and work experience for new Canadians
Health care professionals from the Canadian Hearing Society and immigrant doctors who are seeking accreditation in Canada travel between schools to hold clinics. Donors help pay the cost of the clinics and even fund the costs of the doctors.
Six International Medical Graduates (IMG) are currently part of the program – each one able to provide 100 vision screening clinics. Not only can they obtain valuable Canadian experience, they act as role models to newcomer students.
This integrated initiative has delivered a key service to a vulnerable population in a trusted part of their local community: the local neighbourhood school. What’s more, students who had been identified with a history of low academic performance or had been referred to Special Education programs were able to be enrolled into “regular” mainstream classrooms.
Over the past several years, over 45,000 students in high priority neighbourhood schools, from junior kindergarten to Grade 12, have received selected vision and hearing procedures in the school locations. Next steps for the project include procuring universal screening, inspiring policy change and obtain permanent, stable funding. The TDSB is requesting government funding for a three-year vision and hearing screening clinics program at all its Model Schools for Inner Cities which serve up to 60, 000 students.
The Gift of Sight and Sound project has paid other dividends including a better understanding of the barriers to health care facing students and families in inner city neighbourhoods. Over 80% of children in need of another hearing assessment did not have a family doctor while 11.5% of children were without a valid health insurance card. A new pilot project at the TDSB, the Model Schools Pediatric Health Initiative, now aims to introduce medical clinics in priority neighbourhood schools.
In 2010, the Gift of Sight and Sound received the CBC Toronto Vision Award for Immigrant Inclusion in recognition for employing international doctors – by giving them Canadian experience for accreditation and providing alternative careers in healthcare.
Making it Work for You:
- Provide opportunities for internationally trained medical professionals to gain local work experience through working in positions of visions screeners and program administration when possible.
- Connect school-based vision and hearing screening to follow-up services offered in the school community to ensure that students don’t fall through the cracks or fall further behind.
- Look for funding and in-kind support from nontraditional sources to seed a new idea or launch a pilot project. If it’s successful, the pilot can jumpstart broader initiatives with more stable funding in school boards, or similar institutions.