It’s no picnic traveling through life with malfunctioning ears. John Centa knows. For more than half a century, Centa has strained to hear his friends’ jokes, theater productions, even his church pastor.
But Centa, 88, is not a man to struggle needlessly. He found plenty of devices to help him hear, and for the past 25 years he’s tried his best to spread the word about helpful technology to the hearing-impaired population. But, to his frustration, many people in that group aren’t listening.
“It’s a hard sell,” he says. “For some it’s too much bother to even help themselves.”
Which is why Centa wants the new library the city of Coeur d’Alene is building to include a hearing assistive center for the public when it opens. A small assistive center operates in the current library and is one of the state Council on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing’s demonstration centers.
Plans for the new library include a larger hearing assistive center, but money could limit space. Centa is adamant about the need for a hearing device center. George Neyman, a state hearing council member from Coeur d’Alene, believes the library has proved its commitment to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community and wouldn’t eliminate the center.
“What the library has is very good and it will grow,” Neyman says. “The (hearing) council will never let it go.”
Russ Patterson manages the center for the library and agrees with Neyman that the city is dedicated to its hearing-impaired population.
“The city sees a real need,” Patterson says. “It’s been very good about making sure that this service continues.”
Centa’s passion for the center grew during the last 25 years as he tried to awaken North Idaho’s hard-of-hearing population to the technological help available. He was dismayed when he retired to Hayden in 1978 and discovered how technologically behind the area was compared to his previous home on the East Coast.
Centa was 30 when he realized his ears weren’t working correctly. He was testing a recording film for DuPont Co. when he noticed everyone else in the room taking notes as if they heard something on the film. He’d heard nothing.
Vanity never occurred to Centa. He immediately bought hearing aids and changed his world.
When he settled in Hayden, Centa adapted his home phone to work with his hearing aid. But he couldn’t use phones away from home. A magazine article led him to Self Help for the Hard of Hearing, a grass-roots group that lobbied for assistive devices in public buildings and helped people with hearing problems.
Centa became SHHH’s standard-bearer in Idaho after the group’s founder invited him to share his phone problems in Idaho with national lawmakers. After Centa warned GTE he was about to broadcast Idaho’s technological backwardness in front of a national audience, GTE adapted 70 pay phones in North Idaho for use with hearing aids. Now, such technology is required by law.
SHHH was hardly off the ground when Centa opened the nation’s second chapter in Hayden in 1981. Like a salesman, he took his message for the need for hearing-assistive devices to places near his home the public frequented. He also went to work on the hearing-aid industry pushing for the development of better equipment.
About a decade ago, SHHH opened its own hearing assistive center in an office Aging and Adults Services in Coeur d’Alene offered the group. SHHH brought in monthly speakers on a variety of hearing-related issues and each free gathering typically drew more than 100 people.
Such attendance was no surprise to Centa. Research indicates that 10 percent of the general population suffers from some degree of hearing loss. That means about 4,000 people in Coeur d’Alene could use help to hear more clearly. Centa says at least one-third of those people deny hearing problems, which still leaves about 2,700 people searching for ways to hear better.
The center SHHH opened offered the public a chance to try out some of the latest hearing-related devices and learn about them under no commercial pressure. SHHH volunteers staffed the center. Centa convinced hearing-device manufacturers of the value of introducing their equipment to potential buyers through the SHHH center.
Centa estimates the center drew more than 1,000 people during its five-year run. When the aging agency needed its office space back, volunteers were too worn out to hunt for a new home.
But Centa, who had reached his 80s by then, hadn’t worn out. Coeur d’Alene’s library hired Patterson to interpret for the deaf a few years ago and Centa recognized opportunity. He pointed out to Patterson that one in 10 people with impaired hearing is deaf and that society, at least locally, was overlooking the remaining nine.
Patterson expanded his services in the library to include some new hearing-assistive devices people could study and take home to try out. Devices included fire alarms that flash lights, baby-cry signalers, alarm clocks that vibrate and even a computer communication system that includes a Webcam at one end that sends images of a sign language interpreter.
The Council on Deaf and Hard of Hearing recently gave the center $1,800 for equipment. Coeur d’Alene’s Three Cs, a philanthropic group that raises money for health-related programs, donated $500 to the center. Such support has given the library center an image of permanence to the hearing-impaired community, Neyman says.
Centa worries about the center’s future because people need a noncommercial site to study what technology is available, he says. Without the center, the hearing-impaired community will have to rely on commercial vendors and that information will come with limitations, he says.
Neyman understands Centa’s need for assurance that the library center has a future, but he says it’s misplaced.
“A tremendous number of people use the facility and equipment,” Neyman says. “Let’s form a foundation within the library to support it. Then it’s perpetual.”