Those who experience deafness look just the same as everyone else. They have two ears (but they are only good for decoration or hanging earrings), many speak clearly; lip read with skill and do not ‘sound deaf’. While this can cause communication problems there are also other hidden issues.
Deaf or hearing impaired people find it difficult to participate in groups and this can impose social isolation. Even if they lip read with skill, by the time they locate the speaker the conversation has moved on. Rather than risk being seen as stupid they clam up and use that blank ‘hope the way I’m smiling is appropriate’ smile. Even when a deaf or hearing impaired person is present the group tends to ignore them sending the message ‘you are not important’ and so the deaf person becomes hidden full view.
Therfore, being unable to communicate causes social isolation and eventually social isolation can turn into physical isolation. Deaf people become trapped in their own homes because they cannot easily use a phone, hear someone knocking on the door and social gatherings become too hard, often boring and sometimes downright hurtful.
As our population ages we not only face the issues of isolation so often experienced by older people, but many of us will, because the commonest cause of deafness is ageing(1), have the additional frustration of not being able to easily communicate. For a deaf person, the skills and forbearance needed to improve their situation are very tiring and as we age we have less energy to cope.
Professor Graeme Clark, the inventor of the Cochlear Implant, was the 2007 Boyer Lecturer – a series of lectures from a prominent Australian broadcast on Australian radio. He talks about our senses as the way we experience the world and how losing one of them can be devastating. This impacts on quality of life often at a time when this quality is diminishing anyway.
Currently around 60,000 people in Australia (0.3%) are profoundly deaf with a further 160,000 (0.7%) severely deaf(2) and these statistics are probably reflected in most other countries. Even if profound deafness remains at three people in every 1,000, there will be a natural threefold increase in people who could be isolated by it, simply because of the increase in our aging population. But it gets worse. Due to the high incidence of listening to very loud music in their youth, it is expected this generation will re-write statistics because many more will suffer from deafness.
Treatment for deafness is different to that of failing vision, another health issue for an ageing population. As a general rule, failing vision can be treated by an optometrist with prescriptive lenses. These glasses correct vision giving the individual ‘perfect’ sight again. The treatment for deafness is a hearing aid, but unlike glasses a hearing aid cannot correct the problem. All a hearing aid does is magnify or increase sound volume and cannot fill in the sounds the wearer cannot hear. For many people making the sound louder will help them understand speech a little better but there are others for whom a hearing aid will not work because the inner ear is damaged.
The hidden disability of deafness often hides the person and sends a message; ‘you are not important’. More and more people will have a hearing impairment as they age so we need a greater awareness of deafness and the isolation it causes.
(1) McNair, Trisha Hicks, Rob; Deafness and Hearing Problems ,http://www.bbc.co.uk/health/conditions/deafness1.shtml accessed 20/11/07
(2) Clark, Graham; 2007 Boyer Lecture series, Lecture 2 Loss of Contact http://www.abc.net.au/rn/boyerlectures/stories/2007/2084237.htm accessed 20/11/07