The ability to communicate forms the basis of our society so if a person finds communication hard they may be sidelined.
Hearing impairment, an increasing problem in our aging population(1), causes a breakdown in communication and is a disability hidden in full view. Unlike a person with a physical handicap or someone who is blind there are usually no visible signs of deafness. Even if a Deaf person uses sign as their primary language they are not going to use it when integrating with the hearing world. So, people do not look deaf, they still have two ears, and, because many speak well, they do not ‘sound deaf’.
This is often the case for people with late onset deafness. They grew up hearing, were fully integrated into the hearing world; at school, at work and socially. When they lose their hearing they do not have the resources and support structures to deal with this loss.
You, as a hearing person, have never experienced deafness so you may find this disability difficult to understand and perhaps inadvertently, contribute to a sense of isolation hearing impaired and deaf people experience. Many hearing people show frustration at repeating themselves. They do not speak slower and a little more clearly. They do not face the deaf person. They may turn away or cover their mouth while speaking. Hearing people can be rude, laugh at or even ignore someone who is having difficulty. This response says “you do not matter”.
Recently my hearing impaired friend Debbie, was standing in a checkout queue. The person behind her spoke and of course Debbie did not hear. The check-out operator pointed out she was being spoken to so Debbie turned, apologised and pointed to a badge she was wearing; “I have a hearing impairment. Please speak slowly and clearly so I can understand you.” The person in the queue responded, “Well you should have the sign on your back.” (There are many responses which come to mind for this kind of thoughtlessness.)
Many deaf people struggle in a world predominantly geared to hearing. They are afraid of sounding stupid; being misunderstood and in turn misunderstanding which adds up to considerable frustration so they frequently withdraw. Even catching the words of someone next to them can be difficult over a babble of noise. This inability to easily communicate imposes social isolation.
Eventually social isolation turns into physical isolation because the hearing impaired opt out of attending uncomfortable situations. They become trapped in their own homes because they cannot easily use a phone, hear someone knocking on the door, listen to music, the radio or television and because social gatherings are just too hard, often boring and sometimes downright hurtful.
Deafness is a disability which is misunderstood. It isolates people. At first this may be social isolation but it can lead to physical isolation. Age-related deafness is the commonest cause of deafness(2) and within the next 40 years many more people will experience deafness, so it is a disability that needs to be better understood.
(1) 25% will be over 65 within 40 years - 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
(2) McNair, Trisha Hicks, Rob; Deafness and Hearing Problems, http://www.bbc.co.uk/health/conditions/deafness1.shtml accessed 20/11/07