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Understanding the impact of hearing loss and deafness

Deaf population often still marginalised

As the sounds of spring starts emerging around us spare a thought for the 360 million people worldwide who, according to the World Health Organisation suffer from disabling hearing loss, 32 million of whom are children. Hearing loss can result in partial or profound deafness and in many instances can actually be prevented.

As September is National Month of Deaf People we examine the everyday challenges deaf people face as well as the causes associated with hearing loss.

Causes of hearing loss

As one gets older it is normal for hearing to deteriorate, however there are numerous causes other than age that can result in hearing loss.

  • Genetic - In some instances hearing loss is inherited where dominant genes can cause mild to profound hearing loss.
  • Illness - Certain illnesses such as measles, meningitis and mumps can cause damage to the auditory nerve, resulting in partial or complete hearing loss.
  • Neurological disorders - Strokes and neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis can also impact hearing.
  • Physical trauma - People who sustain head injuries often experience ringing in the ear (tinnitus), which in certain instances is permanent.
  • Noise - Almost half of all cases of hearing loss is caused by noise. Constant exposure to high noise levels can often lead to gradual hearing loss.

Practical impact of hearing loss

Probably the greatest impact associated with hearing loss is that it impacts the person's ability to communicate with others. Speech in children with undetected hearing loss is often delayed. It can also have a hugely negative impact on their academic performance.

Social and emotional impact of hearing loss

Not being able to communicate and interact normally understandably has a huge impact on everyday life. This can result in feelings of loneliness, isolation and frustration.

Interacting with people with hearing loss

Often people with hearing loss are regarded as different, and in some instances even mentally impaired, which can have a tremendous impact on their confidence and self-esteem.

It is therefore a good idea to learn ways of interacting and how to better communicate with people you may encounter that have some form of hearing loss.

  • Establish a comfortable distance between you and the deaf person
  • Establish eye contact before initiating communication
  • Wait your turn before signing or speaking
  • Make sure your face is clearly visible
  • Don't stand with your back against the light

Preventing hearing loss

The following are a few simple measures that can be implemented to minimise the chances of hearing loss:

  • Immunising children against diseases such as measles, meningitis, rubella and mumps
  • Promoting and following healthy ear care practices
  • Reducing exposure to loud sounds
  • Encouraging the use of protective devices such as earplugs and noise-cancelling earphones and headphones
  • Referring high risk infants for early hearing assessments to ensure prompt diagnosis and management

Most people who develop hearing loss are able to learn lip-reading skills and sign language. However when it comes to promoting greater inclusion for people with hearing loss there is still much to be done.

Teaching sign language in regular schools, as well as including the use of captioning and sign language on television, are just some of the many ways we as South Africans can ensure better inclusion for this often marginalised group going forward.


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