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Philanthropist Bill Austin Gives Gift of Hearing

The head of a leading US hearing aid company spends much of his time providing hearing aids to poor children around the world. Bill Austin, the founder and chief executive of Starkey Laboratories, spoke with Mike O'Sullivan about the work of his foundation in giving the gift of hearing.

Bill Austin has made custom-fitted hearing aids for US presidents, including Ronald Reagan, and a host of rock stars, actors, and other celebrities. But he says his greatest satisfaction comes from seeing the faces of children who can hear their own voices for the first time.

"Hearing is a birthright," said Bill Austin. "It helps us be all we can be for our families and our world. And it helps these people meet the challenges of life."

The Starkey Hearing Foundation, a charity Austin founded in 1973, makes over 150 international trips each year to customize hearing aids for children and adults. Austin personally takes part in at least 20 of the missions.

He recently went to Turkey, where he and his team of audiologists provided 2,000 hearing aids for the needy. They also visited Malawi, helping families that were mired in poverty.

"They're very poor," he said. "People, if they're going anywhere, most of the people are walking. Only a tiny percentage has some kind of transportation. Most of the people can't afford fuel. And they would get up in the morning at 12, 1 o'clock and walk 30 miles [about 50 kilometers] to get to where we were to have hearing help."

The World Health Organization says nearly 280 million people around the world suffer from moderate to severe hearing loss. Two-thirds of them are in developing countries, and the organization says most would benefit from hearing aids.

Austin says hearing loss is a problem in both the industrial world and developing nations, for different reasons.

"As a country becomes more progressed, it has better medicine, people are wealthier, so they buy things that destroy their hearing, whether it's recreational toys and vehicles or whether it's the iPods with the buds [small earphones] in their ears, they find a way to cause hearing loss by noise," noted Bill Austin. "If you go into extreme poverty, you find they can't afford the noisy stuff, so there's not much noise loss, but there's a lot more hearing loss caused by disease."

Austin recently visited two homes for the disabled in Panama, and says he was deeply moved by the smiles and hugs of those who regained their hearing.

"And when these children and parents say 'God bless you,' I always reply and say, 'God has already blessed me," he said. "He sent you. You're my blessing because you give me purpose in life and you give my life value. I'm able to help you, and that makes me important.'"

The Starkey Hearing Foundation has donated more than 150,000 hearing aids to children and adults around the world. Austin says future missions will take his team to Romania, Nepal, Mozambique, South Africa, Malawi, Vietnam, and many other countries.