Now I’M Hearing the Facts


What I Didn’t Know About Hearing Disability

As a person with a visual disability, I know that there are countless eye diseases and conditions that can affect people in various ways. The same disease can progress, stabilize or have different symptoms in different people. Now that I have two co-workers with hearing disabilities, I am learning that hearing disabilities can be just as complex.

There are many hearing disorders. The three most common are otitismedia (ear infection), presbycusis (high frequency sound loss), and tinnitus (ringing in the ears). Ear infection causes temporary hearing loss and is most prevalent in infants and young children. Presbycusis is hearing loss that affects a person’s ability to hear high frequency sound and is often part of the aging process. An individual can have both presbycusis and tinnitus. Tinnitus is most prevalent in people who are over the age of 50. Tinnitus can affect one or both ears and produces a
constant or intermittent ringing,hissing, whining, or roaring sound with high or low frequency. Tinnitus, caused by an outer ear obstruction (e.g. wax build-up) or a middle ear infection, can be remedied. However, if tinnitus is the result of trauma to the inner ear due to injury to the head or neck, exposure to a sudden loud noise, or repeated exposure to constant loud noise, it can be a permanent disorder. If there is no physical
indication of the cause, it is very difficult to determine the source of the tinnitus.

There are other hearing disorders that affect different parts of the ear in different ways. For example, someone might be able to hear high-pitched sounds more easily than low-pitched or vice versa. The same hearing disorder can render different symptoms in different people, as can different eye diseases. Therefore, it is unreasonable to assume that all people with a hearing disability should be accommodated in the same way. For example, not everyone with a hearing disability wears a hearing aid. While a hearing aid enhances the quality of sound for some people, for others it amplifies meaningless, distracting noises.

It is important to remember that people with a hearing disability have been trained to hear and do not take sound for granted. For most of us, however, sound defines itself. Therefore, if the hearing aid does not help to define sounds, it will assist only in frustrating the wearer. As a person with a visual disability, many people have asked me, “Why don’t you just get glasses?” Eyeglasses are very effective in correcting near-sightedness and far-sightedness, but they do not correct the symptoms of eye diseases/conditions. Similarly, hearing aids are not a cure-all.

I used to think that a person’s speech was an indicator of the degree of hearing loss. However, one person can have a greater degree of hearing loss than another person and still have clearer speech. There are many factors that determine how well a person with a hearing disability speaks. How many years of speech therapy did that person have? How long has he or she had the hearing disability? How much has speech been a part of that person’s culture? For example, did the person grow up in a sign language environment or a speech environment?

You may have noticed that I have not used the term “hearing impaired”. Some people interpret this term as an inability for a person to function well due to his or her hearing disability. The word “impaired” also suggests a temporary state. In most cases, hearing disability is permanent. For visual disability, often the preferred term is “low visioned” and not “visually impaired”.

By writing this article, I am not professing to be an expert on the subject of hearing disability. I am a novice. However, ignorance and generalization go hand-in-hand, and I think we should all take the time to learn about and appreciate the differences each of us has as an individual. Of the nine of us in the CCRW Toronto office,seven of us have a disability. We try to gain an understanding of our individual disabilities by asking many questions. Questions should be welcomed. Holding back questions means holding onto misconceptions. Misconceptions are barriers to effective work relationships, as they lead to uninformed decisions and conclusions about a person. It was the
answers to my questions that clarified my misconceptions, gave me accurate information for this article,and provided me with a better understanding of my colleagues’ individual hearing disabilities.

I thank my CCRW colleagues, The Canadian Hearing Society, The Better Hearing Institute, and Sharon Fineberg, Audiologist, for their contributions to my research for this article.

Holding back questions means holding onto misconceptions.


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