A black and white photo of a group of women and men who were involved with the Chicago Hearing Society a long time ago.

CHS History

A picture of William & Ruth Erdmann at a Chicago Hearing Society Event from 1927.

On January 23, 1916, a group of about 30 hard of hearing individuals and teachers of the deaf met for the first time and organized under the name Chicago League for the Hard of Hearing. The group was led by Rose Dickinson and Gertrude Torrey, who modeled the organization after leagues that had been founded a few years earlier in Boston and New York.

The League incorporated as a nonprofit agency on May 6, 1916. Its original purposes were:

1. Promotion of social intercourse among the membership.

2. Assistance for the deaf and hard of hearing in the matter of procuring and retaining employment.

3. Promotion of an interest in lip-reading.

4. Aiding and furthering in each and every way possible helpful work among the deaf and hard of hearing.

In 1918, Miss Torrey wrote, “The most difficult and most important part of our work is finding employment for our applicants.” In addition to job placement, the League’s early programs included lip-reading classes and social activities to alleviate the isolation often imposed by hearing loss.

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The roaring twenties found the Chicago League for the Hard of Hearing located in a three-story house at 206 East Superior Street. The roots of our present day Hearing Aid Bank can be traced to this time period, as lip-reading classes and social activities continued to be an important part of the League’s program.In the early 1920s, the League sponsored hearing tests in Chicago public schools. These early tests were tuning fork, whisper and watch tests. By 1929, the League began promoting the use of the phonograph audiometer to take the place of whisper tests in schools.

In May 1927, the League exhibited Hearing Devices from the Leading Chicago Companies at the third annual Woman’s World Fair held at the Chicago Coliseum. Members of the older generation and even some “flappers” were wearing carbon-type hearing aids with separate battery packs. Some of the more fashion conscious were wearing bone conduction hearing aids with the receiver hidden in a tortoise shell or rhinestone tiara.

In May 1929, the League moved from its community house on Superior Street to club rooms located on the tenth floor of DePaul Building at 63 East Lake Street. The League started the 1930s by joining the Chicago Woman’s Aid organization in a drive for the installation of group hearing aids in theaters, movie houses and churches.

The May 1930 issue of the League Bulletin contained a notice for a “number of second hand hearing aids…which can be purchased at very reasonable rates.” The 1939 annual report indicates that hearing aids were given to 20 persons who were unable to purchase an aid.

The League continued its work in public schools by employing a nurse to administer and follow up on hearing tests. A report on the League’s work indicated that close to 30,000 students in 27 public schools were given the whisper test. Of the 2,590 who failed and were referred to an ear specialist, 900 were found to be hard of hearing.

During the 1930s, the effects of the Great Depression were felt throughout the Chicago area. The League noted that in a six month period, 350 hard of hearing men and women applied for jobs and only 58 were placed. The 1939 annual report noted that the League served 152 “welfare cases” by helping people apply to a public agency for assistance and distributing food and clothing.

In the late 30s, the League moved to Chicago’s Fine Arts Building on South Michigan Avenue.

A student has her hearing tested with a phonograph audiometer in the early 1930s. The audiometer was a technological improvement over tuning forks and whisper tests, which had been used in earlier years.

The League began the 1940s by showing tangible success of its earlier efforts. A September 1940 League Bulletin listed 44 movie theaters in the Chicago area equipped with group hearing aids.In early 1941, the League’s name was changed to the Chicago Society for the Hard of Hearing in order to conform with the name of the national organization, the American Society for the Hard of Hearing.In December 1941, the Society opened its Hearing Aid Bureau to give individuals an opportunity to try hearing aids under neutral conditions.For the first time, professional social workers were added to the staff. In 1942, the Society hired its first Executive Secretary, Mary L. Thompson, who would remain in the position until 1970.The 1940s were also an important time financially. In 1943, the Society received its first allocation from the Community Fund of Chicago. The first Woman’s Board was formed in 1949 and the results of its benefit card part were “greater than for any of the Society’s previous benefits.”

In 1945, the Society arranged its first meeting for parents of deaf children. In 1946, the Society started a class for mothers of deaf pre-school children, and with the Parkway Community Center, began an after-school play group for deaf children. By 1947, a parent group was formed for mothers and fathers of deaf and hard of hearing children and began to meet monthly.

In 1947, the Society moved to 30 West Washington Street. In order to reflect its broad interest in all aspects of hearing problems, the Society changed its name to Chicago Hearing Society (CHS).

In 1951, CHS completed a two-year hearing conservation demonstration project. Of the 22,000 children tested, 3,000 were found to be in need of ear examinations. Of the more than 1,000 who had ear examinations, over 60 percent were not previously known to have a hearing problem. Based on these results, the Chicago Board of Education assumed financial and administrative responsibility for the program.

In 1953, the CHS used a grant from the Wieboldt Foundation to begin a three-year project to provide recreation programs to combat the isolation experienced by most deaf children. When the grant ended, CHS continued the project as one of its regular programs.

CHS ended the decade by presenting its first live half-hour TV program “On the Other Side of Sound.” A kinescope was made of the show and used locally and in other cities to educate viewers about hearing problems.

A Chicago Hearing Society display for National Hearing Week (1955).

During the sixties, CHS continued reaching the public through television. In 1961, CHS acted in an advisory capacity to WTTW in developing a special weekly television program for deaf and hard of hearing children. CHS also sponsored the television series “Let’s Lip-read” in conjunction with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, which ran weekly from September 7 through December 13 in 1965. More than 42,000 people purchased the lip-reading manual to accompany the program. Due to popular demand, the series was repeated in 1966.

In the late 1960s, CHS developed a Health Education Program and secured two major projects – an innovative program of lip-reading and hearing rehabilitation for the elderly which was funded with state and federal funds, and a federally funded pilot project investigating the psychological and social aspects of hearing loss among the elderly.

One of the final projects undertaken by Executive Secretary Mary Thompson prior to her retirement was the planning and execution of Chicago’s first symposium on the effects of noise on man. One outcome of the symposium was the establishment of CHS’s program of consultation and direct services to industries in the field of hearing test and conservation. Miss Thompson was succeeded as Executive Director by Dr. William Plotkin in 1970.

With Dr. Plotkin at the helm, CHS began developing a more vigorous approach to programs for the deaf community. In 1970, CHS offered its first class in American Sign Language for persons with normal hearing who wish to communicate with the deaf. Attendance at the early classes averaged 12 people per week. Within a few years, the sign language instruction program had grown to become one of CHS’s major services.

In the fall of 1972, CHS received a major grant from the Chicago Community Trust to establish the first counseling program for deaf people in Illinois.

In 1973, CHS moved to 178 West Randolph Street. The move was prompted by the need to cut overhead costs in the face of a recession and an increasing concern with fundraising activities. In 1977, the CHS Board of Directors passed a resolution requiring each Board member to be responsible for raising at least $1,000.

In 1975, CHS began its long involvement with the Fone-A-Test program. Supported in the beginning by Beltone, the recorded telephone hearing test was used by more than 200,000 people its first year.

In 1978, CHS moved to 6 East Monroe Street, and Dr. Plotkin resigned a year later after almost a decade of service as executive director. In the late 1970s, CHS began offering training programs for sign language interpreters, and in March 1979, established Illinois’ first sign language interpreter referral service.

Led by Mary Mulcrone, the program showed revenue of $58,948 in 1981 – its first full year of service – and would grow over the years to become one of CHS’s major services.

Members of a Chicago Hearing Society young adults group twist the night away in this photo from the early 1960’s

Janet Venable successded Paul Krouse as CHS executive director in 1981 and the decade sparked new growth for the organization. By fiscal year 1988, the total expenses from the beginning of the decade had more than tripled.

In 1980, CHS offered deaf individuals assistance in the preparation of their income tax forms. During that first year, volunteer sign language interpreters and income tax preparers were originally scheduled to be on hand for one day. Their services were in such demand, however, that three additional half-day sessions were arranged. Today, the program remains popular.

Also in 1980, the Board of Directors approved a resolution establishing the Marion Goldman Award for Exceptional Volunteer Service. The award was named as a tribute to Mrs. Goldman, who served on the CHS Board from 1948 to 1980.

During this time, many members of the deaf community became acquainted with CHS through the Interpreter Referral Service. This led to increased advocacy activity from staff members on behalf of CHS’s deaf customers.

In 1981, CHS established an ongoing relationship with the Chicago Park District to offer Camp Sign, a six-week summer day camp program for deaf and hard of hearing youngsters. This relationship would continue until 2000.

After moving to 10 West Jackson Boulevard in 1983, CHS opened the Charles A. Silberman Center for Assistive Devices. The Silberman Center was established to provide people with the opportunity to see various assistive devices and learn how they operate. Mr. Silberman had been an active member of the CHS Board of Directors for many years. The Silberman Center has evolved into as online service reaching people throughout the United States.

Richard Gelula was named CHS executive director in 1984; he was succeeded by Pamela Ransom in 1985.

The next few years were a time of advocacy and legislative activity. CHS was instrumental in the formation of the Illinois Alliance for the Hearing Impaired, and took the lead in advocating for several key pieces of legislation, including:

Measures which assure language credit for American Sign Language in Illinois schools
TTY access to 911 emergency services
Establishing relay services long before it would be mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act
In 1987, CHS hosted the first of several Celia Warshawsky Leadership conferences, named in honor of the CHS volunteer and community activist. The purpose of the conferences was to acquaint deaf people with the legislative process and empower them to become self-advocates.

The CHS Women’s Board is reactivated in 1989 and gives the agency a much welcomed boost to fund raising efforts.

As the 1980s began, the focus of CHS’s hearing and vision testing programs became private day care sites, assisted by funding from the Illinois Department of Public Health. By the end of the decade, the focus shifted and CHS began providing screening services for preschoolers in Chicago Head Start sites.

Fiscal year 1989 is the first time the CHS operating budget tops $1 million.

The nineties began with a move to 332 South Michigan Avenue and CHS begins offering first-run open-captioned movies in a theatre setting. Drawing an audience of 200 to 300 people, CHS hosted monthly screenings until 1999 when open-captioned movies are shown in general release in theaters nationwide.

CHS established the Adult Role Models in Education of the Deaf (A.R.M.E.D.) program in 1991. The program is the brainchild of attorney Howard Rosenblum, who, while visiting his junior high school a few years earlier, met a deaf student who had difficulty believing that he was deaf. When Mr. Rosenblum realized the girl had never met a deaf adult before, he committed himself to assuring that deaf youngsters have the opportunity to meet and learn from deaf adults. Susan Kidder was named CHS’s Executive Director in 1991; she was followed by Jill Sahakian in 1995.

CHS held the first of three annual Communication Access 2000 conferences in 1992. The conferences addressed such topics as the Americans with Disabilities Act and technology and educational issues. In 1994, CHS became a TTY distribution site for the program sponsored by the Illinois Telecommunications Access Corporation. With staff fluent in American Sign Language and Spanish, CHS became one of the busier distribution sites in Illinois.

In 1995, private day care services were extended to Head Start sites in the suburbs. The Pre-School Screening program served 10,000 to 12,000 children annually until it closed in 2001 and the Chicago Department of Public Health assumed primary responsibility for screening.

In a major milestone, on July 1, 1997, CHS merged with Anixter Center, a nonprofit human services agency that assists people with disabilities to live and work in the community. The merger is the successful result of shared philosophical, economic and organizational goals.

“We believe our merger with Anixter Center will enable Chicago Hearing Society to grow and to offer more comprehensive service to the community than would have been possible had we continued to operate on our own,” said Karen Kizer, president of the CHS board. At the time of the merger, the CHS annual operating budget is $1.3 million.

Digital hearing aids are offered by CHS for the first time in 1997. Hailed as one of the ten greatest medical advances of 1996, the hearing aids contain a computer chip that can be programmed to meet the needs of the wearer.

In 1998, CHS established a victim assistance program for deaf and hard of hearing victims of crime. A full-time counselor, fluent in sign language, is available to assist victims in filing police reports, advocating for interpreters or other communication access, accompanying victims to court, and filing for any compensation to which they may be entitled. Also in 1998, most CHS programs move into an office at Anixter Center’s 2001 North Clybourn Avenue office. The following year, the remaining programs moved to the same location.

The first leadership workshop for deaf and hard of hearing high school students is offered in 1999 and is co-sponsored by CHS and the Midwest Center for Postsecondary Outreach Site at Harper College. The day-long event focuses on empowerment and team-building to help prepare the students for life after high school.

From 1983 to 2001, Chicago Hearing Society’s Screening and Outreach Program provided hearing and vision screening for thousands
of children annually in day care centers and Head Start sites.

The approach of the new millennium was an exciting time for Chicago Hearing Society. In 2000, Illinois Governor George Ryan and Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago declared August the first ever Sign Language Interpreter Awareness Month. The brainchild of CHS interpreter services assistant director Kim Bianco, this special month was established to increase the public’s awareness of the interpreting profession and to show appreciation for the contributions made by interpreters to improve access for deaf and hard of hearing people.In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2000, CHS provided more than 25,000 hours of interpreter services and its the total operating budget exceeds $2 million for the first time ever.

Also in 2000, CHS offered domestic violence counseling services for the first time. A full-time counselor fluent in sign language works as an advocate with the victims helping them to navigate the police and court system and to receive related services.

The CHS website is expanded to include online registration for sign language classes, the Silberman Center for Assistive Technology and Deaf Line, a listing of events of special interest to people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

CHS became a founding member of CHOICES for Parents, which hires a part-time coordinator in 2001. CHOICES for Parents is a coalition of parents and organizations that provides support and information to parents who have a child with an identified hearing loss. Recently enacted legislation mandated that by the end of 2002, all Illinois hospitals must screen the hearing of newborns.

In 2001 the CHS pre-school hearing and vision screening program closed when the Chicago Health Department expands its services. For 17 years, the CHS program served thousands of children annually in Head Start and day care programs under the direction of Patricia Martin.

In the fall of 2001, CHS joined forces with Hearing Loss Link, a nonprofit organization that serves late-deafened adults. Following the merger, CHS hires a full-time coordinator to provide counseling, advocacy, referrals and education to individuals who have lost their hearing.

At the end of 2004, CHS received a two-year grant from the U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women. The grant enabled CHS to develop and implement training for workers in domestic violence shelters, hospital emergency rooms and other services about how to meet the special needs of deaf victims of domestic violence. A videotape was produced to educate workers across the country.

In 2014, CHS welcomed its new Director, Karen Aguilar, to lead the agency through a move to a new location in Lincoln Park and into its next century of service. With growing programs and services, CHS celebrated its 100-year anniversary in 2016 marking a century of service to the Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing Communities.

In 2017, CHS was named in the well-known Holmes Settlement expanding its services to the Illinois Department of Corrections providing assessments of offenders who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing. In 2019, receiving funding and new contracts, CHS established itself as the new provider for services for the DeafBlind Community.

In 2019, CHS became certified by the FCC as the National DeafBlind Equipment Distribution Program (NDBEDP) site and CHS made its mark this same year establishing a dedicated DeafBlind Program. Services include not only provision of equipment, but advocacy, independent living skills support, case management and tactile instruction.

With the guidance of its Advisory Council, CHS committed itself to a new mission: Providing Communication Access; Hearing Assistive Technologies; and Support Services for Persons who are Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing.

For more information about CHS, or programs or services, please contact us at AskCHS@anixter.org.

In May, 2003, CHS contracted with CSD to begin providing video relay interpreting services.