Stefanie Ellis-Gonzales was looking forward to picking up free hearing aids for two of her children, a gift worth thousands of dollars, at an event the Starkey Hearing Foundation hosted this month at Super Bowl 50.
After the experience, she said she felt exploited. The hearing aid fittings were done onstage, before an audience of hundreds. “Many of us felt very put down by this and embarrassed by how we were portrayed — and the situation we put our kids in,” said Ellis-Gonzales, who lives in suburban San Francisco with her family.
The event has revealed tensions between some in the deaf community and Starkey, a company and related foundation that take pride in channeling hearing aids to people in need around the world. After the event, the California Association for the Deaf called on Eden Prairie-based Starkey to change its marketing practices and stop engaging in what the association calls “inspiration porn.”
Starkey Foundation Executive Director Brady Forseth said in a statement that the foundation tried to “ensure a positive experience for all,” noting that the group “did not receive any complaints during the mission.” The foundation declined interview requests.
The California group sent Starkey a letter after the San Francisco event asking to discuss ways to “make future events a more positive experience for families of deaf children.” Such events could provide important education to the families of deaf children and still be inspiring, perhaps by showcasing deaf children playing football with NFL stars, said CAD President Julie Rems-Smario.
“Their marketing approach is really hurting us,” Rems-Smario said in an interview. “They are pushing the concept that we are OK only if we can hear, that hearing equals joy. Hollywood loves that, but it is just not true.”
The foundation is closely related to Starkey Hearing Technologies, one of the largest hearing aid makers in the world. Last year, the foundation donated more than 200,000 hearing aids worldwide, including about 11,000 devices to low-income families in the United States.
Starkey has given away hearing aids at the Super Bowl for nine years, until now without any known complaints. This year, a total of 134 hearing-impaired people participated in the event, where they were greeted by NFL players including Adrian Peterson of the Vikings, Ted Ginn Jr. of the Carolina Panthers and other stars such as rapper 50 Cent.
On the foundation’s website, deaf children and adults are shown smiling widely after receiving their free hearing aids. Some were in tears.
“We are honored to be able to share the life-changing gift of hearing and give back to the San Francisco community while supporting one of America’s greatest sporting events,” Starkey Hearing founder Bill Austin said in a news release about the event.
Despite Austin’s well-known charitable efforts, his company and foundation have long drawn criticism from advocates for the deaf, who have been frustrated by Starkey’s lack of involvement in their community. In Minnesota, advocates said Starkey has routinely refused to sponsor events and even rejected requests for complimentary tickets to the foundation’s annual gala.
“There is no relationship, and it is not due to lack of effort,” said Cynthia Weitzel, a longtime advocate for the deaf who served as public policy coordinator for the Minnesota Commission of Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing Minnesotans. “I find it interesting that they don’t want representatives of their consumer base involved in any of their events, unless we are utilized as a tool for their own benefit and profit.”
The California group says Starkey has a responsibility to use public events like the pre-Super Bowl bash to educate parents of deaf children about the importance of sign language and learning it early in life, which can make a huge difference in educational outcomes. Several attendees said they were offended by the use of such slogans as “hearing brings joy,” noting that deaf people can be happy — and hugely successful — without using hearing aids.
“I’d like to challenge Starkey to work with the deaf community and develop education for this country and for other countries,” Rems-Smario said. “But Starkey ignored our request for a sit-down and a discussion.”
The event happened the day before the Super Bowl, at the student center at San Francisco State University. Families were lined up when the doors opened at 9 a.m.
Several parents said they were not allowed into the facility unless they signed a media-release form giving Starkey the right to photograph their families and use the images to promote the foundation and its work. Family members said they were then given white T-shirts emblazoned with the Starkey logo and told to wear them for the rest of the day.
“I knew there would be photos, but I wasn’t expecting the media circus that it was,” said Clare Cassidy, who hoped to get hearing aids for her three deaf children at the event.
Cassidy, a professional photographer who also teaches at the California School for the Deaf, said her boys were excited about meeting so many famous people. But she said she and her husband decided to leave early.
“It was disgusting,” Cassidy said. “I couldn’t allow my kids to become that poster child.”
Forseth said in his written statement that the foundation honored a request for a private fitting at the event. “We would never turn anybody away,” he said.
Michele Tompkins, who worked as a volunteer interpreter during the event, said some family members spent hours waiting their turn without anyone telling them what was going on. She said Starkey did not use enough interpreters, leaving many deaf family members confused.
“I was surprised,” Tompkins said. “None of the audiologists I worked with knew sign language. You should be able to communicate with the children you’re fitting.”
Forseth said the foundation used 10 interpreters, including volunteers.
Rosa Lee Timm, 39, said she waited about six hours for her free hearing aids. Like the children, she was ushered on stage, where Austin personally fitted her with the new devices while hundreds of people watched. She said the crowd screamed when she signaled she could hear. A Carolina Panthers player came on stage to have his picture taken with her.
“I felt like a charity case,” said Timm, who saved more than $10,000 by getting free replacements for her aging hearing aids. “It was like, ‘Look at this poor deaf woman. She can’t hear and we changed her life.’ I was very disturbed by that.”
Forseth said the foundation has “deep respect” for the deaf and hearing-impaired. “We acknowledge and respect that people communicate via different methods,” he said in his statement.