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Understanding Deafness: 20 Things to Know

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There are over 50,000 children in the UK who are deaf and temporary hearing loss will impact 80% of children by the age of 10. There are lots of simple ways to be more deaf-friendly, both at school, at home and in other social situations. We spoke to Dr Joy Rosenberg, Clinical and Educational Audiologist, to find out important facts about deafness and how we can best support deaf children.
Did you know that there are more than 50,000 deaf children in the UK?1 We’ve worked with Dr Joy Rosenberg from Oxford Audiology Solutions to bring you 20 key things to know about deafness. 
  1. 90-95% of these children are born to hearing parents, who mainly don’t know a sign language before the birth of their child.2 In the UK, about 50% of deaf children are born deaf.3 Temporary deafness is very common, with 80% of all children experiencing it before the age of 10, often as a result of glue ear.4 30-40% of deaf children have additional needs.5
  2. About 50% of deafness is genetic in nature. Children can be born with genetic deafness, even when the family had no idea that there was deafness in their history. Sometimes, genetic deafness can be related to a syndrome with other characteristics and symptoms.
  3. Very few deaf children have no hearing at all. Most deaf children can hear some sounds at certain frequencies or levels of loudness. Their hearing can often be improved with the use of hearing aids or implants, but it is unlikely to be returned to ‘normal’ levels.
  4. Various factors can cause deafness. A person might  have congenital deafness, which means they were born deaf. This may have been caused by a pregnancy related issue. One example of this is gestational rubella, which caused a large number of babies to be born deaf in the 1960s. For others, deafness may be acquired, meaning it developed at some point after birth. Causes of this include bacterial meningitis, ototoxicity (where medicines damage the cochlea and cause hearing loss) or noise exposure.
  5. 64% of severely or profoundly deaf children in the UK communicate using spoken English only. 31% use sign language in some form. 9% use British Sign Language/Irish Sign Language on its own and 22% sign alongside spoken English.6 Hearing loss may be progressive and can be present either pre or postlingually (before or after language development).
  6. Deafness is generally caused by either conductive or sensorineural difficulties. Conductive deafness is sometimes temporary. We’ve probably all heard of glue ear, where the empty, middle part of the ear fills up with fluid, preventing sound from being conducted effectively. It’s extremely common! One in every ten children starting school in Europe have hearing loss caused by glue ear.7 Waiting lists are lengthy for NHS treatment, and though glue ear often clears up on its own within a year, this can still leave children with hearing loss for extended periods. Paediatrician, Dr Tamsin Holland Brown, has created a useful website of resources and an app to help children with glue ear called Hear Glue Ear
  7. In contrast, sensorineural deafness is normally permanent, causing loudness and distortion issues. In sensorineural deafness, the cochlea does not work properly and the hair cells in the ear are damaged. As these are particular to different frequencies, this can cause distortion problems. 
  8. There are different levels of deafness; mild, moderate, severe and profound. Levels of deafness are established by a hearing test, or audiogram. Sounds have different frequencies, so people with different levels of hearing loss may be able to hear different sounds. 
  9. There are various things that could indicate that a child is experiencing hearing loss. Babies might frequently pull at their ears, or they might be red. Children might mishear or mispronounce words, be unable to hear when there is background noise or not respond when called. They may have delayed speech or communication development, problems with concentration, tiredness or frustration, or difficulties with reading and learning. They might also want the TV volume to be higher than other family members. Look at the Healthy Hearing website for more information.
  10. Get a little bit of an idea about living with hearing loss by listening to this hearing loss simulator. To understand even more about the impact of deafness, buy some ear plugs and pop them in for the day. Try out a variety of situations and see what the impact of hearing loss is. Have a one to one conversation in a quiet place. Put the TV on (without subtitles) at your normal volume. Try it with subtitles too. Have a group conversation somewhere with background noise like a cafe, restaurant or bar. Reflecting on your experience can be a real eye opener! 
  11. As well as affecting hearing, deafness can have a significant impact on speech and language development, social and academic inclusion and achievement, and resilience levels. Each child is different, but deafness can be a significant risk factor for developmental delay. Spoken language development delay is likely to correlate to the amount of time a child has not had access to speech sounds. Sign language development may be delayed if a child does not have access to fluent sign language models. 
  12. Hearing aids are little microphone analysers and loudspeakers, which are tuned to individuals’ hearing loss. It’s important to remember that hearing aids do not restore normal hearing in the vast majority of cases. 
  13. Cochlear implants are surgically placed within the ear and work by sending electrical signals to the 8th (or vestibulocochlear) nerve. Cochlear implants are used for severe and profound hearing loss and can be given to babies and children. Children are likely to need help changing the batteries in both hearing aids and cochlear implants and with cleaning them.
  14. Background noises can be extremely troublesome for people using hearing aids or cochlear implants. Plumbing sounds, electrical sounds, air ducts, aircraft, other people talking, children playing, etc., have a huge impact on the ability to hear. To reduce background noise, add soft furnishings (such as wall coverings, carpet or covers on chairs and chair legs) to a room. 
  15. At school, the closer a child sits to their teacher, the better. Remote microphone systems can also be useful for teachers who want to overcome background noise as these devices take their voice closer to the deaf pupil. There are also microphone setups that work really well for group work.
  16. It takes a lot of cognitive effort to understand what we hear. The effort required to listen is much more taxing for deaf children. It can be very tiring and may impact on children’s physical and mental health. To help deaf children, we need to consider things like classroom seating plans and how we deal with competing sounds.
  17. When communicating with deaf children, it’s important not to cover our mouths, mumble or over exaggerate speech (louder is not necessarily better). If necessary, make sure that you have their attention by giving them a gentle tap, waving or calling their name. Don’t shout or clap. Make sure that they can see your face whilst you are talking, and speak clearly. If they mishear you, rephrase what you said, using different language. Speak one at a time and use visual cues where appropriate. Be patient and keep trying. Look at the National Deaf Children’s Society for more tips! 
  18. Always turn on subtitles or closed captions for any audiovisual material you are using. These are essential for deaf children, but will also benefit hearing children too.
  19. Cultivate deaf children’s resilience by giving them an understanding of their deafness and any equipment they use. Help to develop their self-advocacy skills and encourage them to talk to family, friends and classmates about communication strategies that help them and deaf awareness generally.
  20. Finally, did you know that the hardest bone in your body is in your ear? The petrous portion of the temporal bone encloses the middle and inner ear. It’s derived from the Latin word petrosus, which means stonelike!

FOOTNOTES:

  1. Consortium for Research into Deaf Education (CRIDE), 2019 Survey (2019).

  2. Mitchell, R. E. and Karchmer, M. A., ‘Parental Hearing Status and Signing Among Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students’, Sign Language Studies 5 (2005), pp. 231-244.
  3.  National Deaf Children’s Society.

  4.  National Deaf Children’s Society.

  5. Consortium for Research into Deaf Education (CRIDE), 2019 Survey (2019).
  6. Consortium for Research into Deaf Education (CRIDE), 2019 Survey (2019).
  7. Williamson, I. G., et al., ‘The Natural History of Otitis Media with Effusion – A Three-Year Study of the Incidence and Prevalence of Abnormal Tympanograms in Four South West Hampshire Infant and First Schools’, Journal of Laryngology and  Otology 108 (1994), pp. 930–4 and Holland Brown, T. M. et al., ‘Bone Conduction Hearing Kit for Children with Glue Ear’, BMJ Innovations 7:4.

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