A late hearing loss diagnosis means that many children are never given the chance to fully develop the ability to use language. Marion Downs realized this fact and fought tirelessly throughout her career for early screenings at birth. She was an audiologist and Professor Emerita at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Denver but taught and trained audiologists all over the world.
At the beginning of her career she found herself a woman in a field dominated by men and a lone voice for early screenings. She was surrounded by colleagues who insisted that there was no difference between hearing loss being detected at birth or years later into a child’s life. The problem with late detection came in missing key months of a child’s hearing development.
“There’s a critical period for language development that occurs between 12 and 24 months, and if children are not stimulated, they don’t hear language and speech developed correctly, they are very often delayed and very often face educational problems for the remainder of their lives,” says Jerry Northern, a longtime colleague. Oftentimes, missing this key development period can mean being isolated from family and friends, and being placed in a separate educational system for deaf and hard-of-hearing children. “The average child that was late identified would leave our school system after 20-some-odd years of schooling with about a third- to fourth-grade reading level. That severely limited their ability to live independently, even though the vast proportion of them had normal or above-normal intelligence.” says Christine Yoshinaga-Itano, an audiologist at the University of Colorado.
Downs took matters into her own hands and in the 1960’s started testing newborns on her own with horns and rattles. She spent decades traveling with doctors and audiologists all across the country, relentlessly urging them to screen newborns. The change did not happen overnight, but eventually more people saw her perspective and new technology was developed that made universal screening easier and more affordable. In 1993 the National Institute for Health made a recommendation for universal newborn hearing screenings.
Today, 97% of babies born in hospitals and birthing centers are screened at birth, and early screenings have become a part of national health policy. Marion passed away in November of last year, survived by her three children, sixteen grandchildren and twenty six great grandchildren. She is remembered as a true pioneer in the field of audiology having trained peers throughout the world, authored numerous articles and books and lectured extensively. She was 100 years old.
“Marion Downs positively impacted more lives than she’ll ever know. Her persistence, relentless advocacy, and significant contributions to pediatric audiology opened the world of sound to many children via early hearing loss detection and intervention. Because of Marion, thousands of children are given a second chance to experience the sounds of life.” Said Michael Noble of Cochlear Americas. Listen to the full NPR story here to learn more about the life and accomplishments of Marion Downs.