Dr. Saunja T. Burt, Pioneering Black Audiologist, Promotes Early Hearing Loss Intervention And Representation In Field
Our kids are coming off the summer season eager for new school adventures, but how can we support those with hearing loss?
Normal hearing can be taken for granted. But Dr. Saunja T. Burt, reportedly the first Black audiologist in the Midwest, makes it her business to debunk misconceptions about the field and encourages families to screen and start interventions for hearing loss as early as possible.
A trailblazer among very few
Burt, a clinic support audiologist at Oticon, Inc., was inspired by her late mother who made a courageous decision to go back to nursing school when she and her siblings were younger.
Growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, “I just remember my earliest memory dressing up in a nurse’s costume,” Burt recalled.
She enjoyed studying with her mother, learning about traumatic brain injury together. But it wasn’t until she saw an audiologist test her little sister that her calling became a bit clearer.
“One thing my parents always valued was education,” Burt tells BLACK ENTERPRISE. “But you just can’t let fear or uncertainty get the best of you. Sometimes it’s easy to stay where we are and what we know.”
Burt received her B.A. in communicative sciences and disorders from HBCU Hampton University and her master’s in business administration from Nova Southeastern University. Then, she was the first Black student to attend and graduate a four-year Au.D. program at Central Michigan University. Her clinical interest focused on auditory processing and traumatic brain injury.
During commencement, it was rewarding to “see these generations of older Blacks come up to me because they didn’t have the opportunity to realize this is for them,” she said. Her late grandfather, who once wore hearing aids, was proud to have a granddaughter in the profession.
Having transitioned from an HBCU to a predominantly white institution (PWI), she found support in speaking about certain challenges, like access to Black hair care. And with that, she left an indelible legacy with her involvement in the Black Graduate Student Association and worked in minority student services.
But the journey wasn’t without experiencing bigotry. Insensitive comments can come from patients or supervisors. In an article that Burt co-wrote with her mentors, she suggests that when students complain of bigotry from patients, supervisors should be more proactive, get training, and believe the student.
Be involved as early as possible, Burt advised. “That’s how you get information. That’s how you meet people. That’s how you start to feel comfortable in your profession,” she says. She tells BE that she didn’t see a lot of people who looked like her on the board of American Academy of Audiology.
“I found that my reach has been greater because of the visibility. Students see me on the board,” Burt says.
“I was very active in the early part of my career, but then I got married, I had children. My mom passed away. I had to step away to do life.”
During the tumultuous time that followed George Floyd’s death, Burt was amazed by how many people reached out to her on Facebook.
“People were really trying to cope,” Burt says. “That was traumatic for all of us. But nobody was acknowledging that what we saw was a psychological issue. That’s when I realized, I need to do more. And so I ran for the board.”
Audiology at its finest
When you hear audiology, you might think of hearing aids. But there is much more to this misunderstood discipline. From diagnosing and treating balance disorders and other neurological systems, there are different areas to specialize in.
Burt shares a story about a mom and her five kids who immigrated to this country. The youngest of the bunch was about seven, but he was still in kindergarten. A social worker took action after realizing how many times he was held back. Burt recognized a problem after he opened his mouth to formulate words.
“He has a hearing loss,” Dr. Burt recalls telling the mom. “It’s so important to catch the hearing loss early on and to detect it.” Newborns are not exempt from hearing loss screenings: “Younger kids are more susceptible, especially babies.”
The social and professional impact of hearing loss can be detrimental. School-age hearing screenings are an integral tool to minimize negative academic consequences. “If it’s an ear infection, it needs to be treated,” Burt said.
“Without mandated routine hearing screenings in schools, students with unilateral, less severe, or late onset hearing loss may not be identified or will be misdiagnosed and managed,” according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
An ear infection is caused by fluid build-up in the middle ear, making it harder for your child to hear because of a conductive hearing loss. Burt said it feels like you’re underwater. However, parents must keep in mind that Black children are less likely to be diagnosed with and less likely to receive broad-spectrum antibiotics for ear infections than white children are, according to a 2014 study.
“But the discrepancy in prescribing fewer broad-spectrum antibiotics means Black children actually are more likely to receive care that aligns with the recommended guidelines for treating ear infections,” per the University of Utah Health Sciences.
Prior to joining Oticon, Dr. Burt was the supervisory audiologist at the Miami Veterans Administration (VA) Healthcare System for 17 years, where she managed the northern outpatient and community-based clinics. She was also a clinical preceptor for third- and fourth-year AuD students. Though some states have guidelines for newborn screening, she witnessed all of the misconceptions about audiology.
- “They’re not paying attention.”
- “They’re not listening to me.”
- “It’s just wax in their ears.”
There are over 40 states with statutes or other regulatory language related to universal newborn hearing screening. “The fact that some states set the standard as low as 85% of all newborns raises significant issues about accessibility and coverage,” per the National Center for Hearing Assessment and Management.
A mentor and community servant
As a certified mentor, Burt has mentored over 45 students and professionals throughout her career. She often encourages students to pursue an audiology degree by discussing her journey. Besides being on the Board of the American Academy of Audiology, she is vice president of Jack and Jill of America Inc, Greater Fort Lauderdale Chapter as well as a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.
That’s not all aspiring audiologists should do.
“You have to do an externship. Get in contact with professional organizations, attend conferences if you can because people are always looking for opportunities to recruit students.”
Much like an internship, an externship offers a brief opportunity for professional development. However, unlike internships, where participants engage in job-related tasks, externs primarily observe and learn from seasoned professionals in their field. Externships generally maintain a more informal structure compared to internships and typically do not provide monetary compensation.
She also advises to reach out to your university and professors. And don’t forget the power of social media for networking.
“Don’t make all the mistakes on your own. Listen to other people.”