25 Years of Redefining the Perception of Hearing Loss: Interview with Jacob Torpe Winter about the Oticon Focus on People Awards

From stigma to empowerment: Championing change through inspiring narratives and real-life success stories

Over 300 people with inspiring stories about their hearing loss, as well as professionals and advocates who have advanced the cause of hearing healthcare, have been honored with the Oticon Focus on People Awards during the past 25 years.

In 1998, Oticon held its first Focus on People Awards at the historic Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles—the original venue for the Academy Awards’ Oscar presentations—in conjunction with the American Academy of Audiology (AAA) convention, which was being held nearby. The event was hosted by actress and hearing care advocate Nanette Fabray, and one of the first honorees that night was the esteemed audiologist and Brooklyn College professor John Duffy, a fierce champion of amplification and spoken-language educational programs for infants and children in New York City who was among the first in the country to fit infants with hearing aids.

As nominations are now open for the 2023 Focus on People Awards, it’s clear a lot has changed in the last 25 years—even if negative stereotypes about hearing aids persist and stigma still is a factor in both hearing aid adoption and the selection of devices by consumers. The good news is that stigma appears to be waning due to technology, early intervention, increased education, the ubiquity of ear-worn devices, and—perhaps most importantly—the many examples of people overcoming hearing loss, providing others with a path to follow.

With the advent of the 25th Oticon Focus on People Awards, HearingTracker thought it would be a good time to look at this long-running awards program by asking Oticon’s US Vice President of Marketing Jacob Torpe Winter for his thoughts. Torpe Winter is responsible for leading Oticon’s product and digital strategy and has 10 years of marketing and sales experience from global companies in the medical device sector. A native of Denmark, he earned a Master of Science in Marketing from Copenhagen Business School and also spent some time at USC in Los Angeles.

Can you provide us with your perceptions of how negative stereotypes about people with hearing loss have changed or not changed in the ensuing 25 years since the first Focus on People Awards?

Torpe Winter: When Oticon introduced the Focus on People Awards, it was the first national awards program to recognize everyday people doing extraordinary things, who also happened to have hearing loss. Our focus then, as it is now, was to demonstrate that hearing loss does not limit a person’s ability to achieve, contribute, and even inspire. We also aimed to motivate people to act, especially when it came to addressing their own hearing health needs.

Jacob Torpe Winter

Jacob Torpe Winter.

At that time, hearing loss was infrequently covered in mainstream news media. Stereotypes about diminished abilities and declining quality of life persisted, despite advances in audiology and hearing technology.

Our emphasis on finding, recognizing, and rewarding outstanding people with hearing loss enabled us to provide a very public platform for education about hearing loss and hearing healthcare. In 25 years, our diverse population of winners has captured national and local news media coverage that not only defies stereotypes of hearing loss but demonstrates that amazing people with hearing loss come from all walks of life.

At the same time, the world of hearing loss was changing, too. Research about hearing loss and cognition also contributed greatly to public awareness of hearing loss. This, and a growing emphasis on Hearing Care is Health Care™ as a regular part of routine healthcare, helped to shift public perception of hearing loss as an inevitable condition of old age to hearing care that spanned a lifetime.

One indicator from the Focus on People Awards program shows how far-reaching these changes can be. In the program's early years, our nominees came primarily from hearing care professionals who had day-to-day connections to people with hearing loss. Today, our nominees come from a wide range of nominators: educators, work colleagues, fellow volunteers, and community members.

I think this shows people are less hesitant to talk about their hearing loss. As we had intended from the beginning of the Focus on People Awards, this openness deflects stigmas, enabling others to see that hearing loss does not limit a person’s ability to be a productive, valuable member of society.

According to 2022 MarketTrak data, hearing loss stigma has decreased over time. Compared to older surveys, far fewer people report feeling embarrassed or rejected due to their hearing aids. But our work continues. The latest statistics from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) say that of Americans aged 20-64, who need hearing aids, only 16% use them.

Why are the Focus on People Awards important to Oticon, and why has the company made such a great effort to highlight the awards over the years?

Torpe Winter: What better way to deliver a message about hearing loss and the potential of hearing care to change lives than through the inspiring stories of our 300-plus award winners?  Oticon Focus on People Award winners have consistently helped to show that in a world where challenges exist, it is still possible to transform your life with courage, determination, and the help of a dedicated hearing care professional.

The connection these stories forge between the public and our amazing winners is a powerful one. Over the years, we have seen how our award winners' stories have helped teach, persuade, and increase understanding and empathy.

Included in the stories are the contributions of hearing care professionals who go above and beyond. It is another way for Oticon to underscore the important role hearing care professionals play in empowering people with hearing loss to reach their full potential.

Can you explain the reason for the four categories, as well as the recently changed/new category?

Torpe Winter: The four categories enable us to honor people with hearing loss across diverse groups.

The Student Standouts category is open to children and young adults with hearing loss, full-time students ages 6-25, who prove that nothing, especially hearing loss, can stand in their way.

Nominees in this category are judged on their accomplishments at school, in the community, and through youth organizations. We are always amazed by how much our youngest nominees have managed to accomplish in such a short time.

The Adult Trailblazers category recognizes people 18 and older with hearing loss who refuse to let it define what is possible. Winners in this category have come from all walks of life. Over the years, we’ve honored teachers, business executives, entrepreneurs, bloggers, social workers, record-setting athletes, police officers, and even a Medal of Honor winner. What they all share is a determination to transform their special circumstances into lives that make a positive difference for many.

Oticon Focus On People Award 2023

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, this year's Focus on People Awards includes an expanded category for Hearing Loss Champions, recognizing those with or without hearing loss who parent, educate, serve, or support people with hearing loss and the hearing loss community.

The Heroic Hearing Care Professionals category honors hearing care practitioners with or without hearing loss who go “above and beyond” to open doors of opportunity for people with hearing loss.  Whether their contributions are in their practice, in their community, or among underserved populations worldwide, they empower people with hearing loss to grow, to thrive, and to reach their fullest potential.

To celebrate the award program’s 25 years, we have expanded another category to include people with and without hearing loss. The new Hearing Loss Champions category is open to adults 25 and older, with or without hearing loss, who parent, educate, serve, or support people with hearing loss and the hearing loss community. Like the many dedicated hearing care professionals who serve children and adults with hearing loss on a daily basis, there are others—parents, teachers, clinic staff, community leaders—whose tireless efforts make the world a better, more inclusive place for people with hearing loss. This year, we want to honor them, too.

What’s the nomination process, and how does someone nominate a person for recognition? Also, how are the ultimate honorees selected?

Torpe Winter: We encourage anyone to nominate either themselves or a remarkable person they know who would qualify for the 2023 Oticon Focus on People Awards. A simple, easy-to-follow nomination form is available online at the Awards website. Nominators are invited to share stories about themselves or a standout person they know. This year's awards nominations close on September 15.

Following the close of nominations, each year’s winners are selected through an online voting program that invites the public to read the stories of all 12 finalists and cast their vote for the first, second, and third place winners in the four categories. It is not unusual for more than 10,000-15,000 votes to be cast by people from across the United States.

Going back to my original question, how do you see the perceptions about hearing loss and hearing healthcare changing in the next 25 years? What will be the driving forces in changing these perceptions?

Hearing healthcare and hearing technology will continue to evolve over the next 25 years.  Contributing to that evolution are the significant changes of recent years—impressive technology breakthroughs, the shift toward rechargeability, the growth of consumer brands in the hearing arena, the high levels of patient satisfaction achieved by hearing care professionals, and the launch of the new over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aid category.

Today, people have many opportunities to acquire knowledge about hearing health and its benefits. They can search online for information on hearing loss and hearing aids in formats from news articles and medical reports to blogs and YouTube videos. Research on cognition, hearing loss, and the benefits of hearing aids captures headlines that engage populations from young adults to seniors.

New hearing technology is routinely celebrated in international showcases like the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Movies and television shows regularly feature people with hearing loss in a range of character roles, from superheroes to crime fighters.

Early childhood experiences help shape how young people perceive the world. Last year, the Oticon Focus on People Awards included recognition of Barbie with Hearing Aids, the newest version of the doll that has captured the hearts and imaginations of children for more than 60 years. The ability of children with hearing loss or any disability to have a doll that mirrors them goes a long way toward changing outdated stigmas and stereotypes.

Barbie With Hearing Aids

Last year, Mattel and the company's Barbie with Hearing Aids was recognized by the awards program.

Consumer organizations like the Hearing Loss Association of America—as well as professional and trade associations like the American Academy of Audiology, Academy of Doctors of Audiology, International Hearing Society, American Speech Language Hearing Association, and the Hearing Industries Association—continue to promote hearing health and hearing care through public campaigns and the outreach of their members. We tend to think of the hearing healthcare field as being small, but when everyone pulls together we really are changing public opinion and perceptions.

At Oticon, we continue to promote Hearing Care is Health Care™ and our belief that the best hearing care is provided by the hearing care professional. All Oticon hearing aids now feature BrainHearing™ technology, reinforcing the importance of hearing health in overall quality of life. And we will continue to invest in the research and innovation that enables our hearing technology to deliver industry-leading sound quality in difficult situations.

For more details on the Oticon Focus on People Awards and how to nominate someone, please visit the awards website.


Editor in Chief

Karl Strom is the editor-in-chief of HearingTracker. He was a founding editor of The Hearing Review and has covered the hearing aid industry for over 30 years.