Facts and Figures
It is estimated that there are 151,000 people in the UK who use British Sign Language and, of these, 87,000 are deaf. Sign Language is a visual means of communicating using gestures, facial expression, and body language. Sign Language is used mainly by people who are deaf or have hearing impairments. In the UK, more than 40% of people over 50 years old have hearing loss, rising to more than 70% of people over the age of 70.
Hearing Loss and Deafness
A person who is not able to hear as well as someone with normal hearing – hearing thresholds of 20 dB or better in both ears – is said to have hearing loss. Hearing loss may be mild, moderate, severe, or profound. It can affect one ear or both ears and leads to difficulty in hearing conversational speech or loud sounds.
- ‘Hard of hearing’ refers to people with hearing loss ranging from mild to severe. People who are hard of hearing usually communicate through spoken language and can benefit from hearing aids, cochlear implants, and other assistive devices as well as captioning.
- ‘Deaf’ people mostly have profound hearing loss, which implies very little or no hearing. They often use sign language for communication.
- Causes of hearing loss and deafness: Although these factors can be encountered at different periods across the life span, individuals are most susceptible to their effects during critical periods in life.
Technology can help
An article in the U3A third age matters newsletter in February 2021 (page 31) said something about the way the pandemic had paved the way for better hearing technology as a result of lockdown lifestyle changes.
The British Irish Hearing Instrument Manufacturers Association (BIHIMA) predicts a rise in technology solutions to help those with hearing loss as people get used to using tablets and smartphones to communicate with family and friends.
It is estimated that there are approximately 11 million people in this country with a hearing loss which makes it the second most common disability in the UK. However, as an invisible disability, it often goes unnoticed, making it easier for those living with hearing loss to be ignored or forgotten.
Hearing Link is a UK charity active in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales for people with hearing loss, their families and friends. Here are some statistics from their website about deafness in the UK:
- As many as one in six of the UK adult population is affected by hearing loss. Eight million of these are aged 60 and over.
- 6.7 million could benefit from hearing aids, yet only about two million people use them.
- About 900,000 people are severely or profoundly deaf.
- About 12,000 people in the UK use cochlear implants (a surgically implanted device to provide a person with moderate to profound sensorineural hearing loss with a modified sense of sound. CIs bypass the normal acoustic hearing process to replace it with electric signals which directly stimulate the auditory nerve).
- Many people with hearing loss also have tinnitus which affects 1 in 10 adults. They may also have balance difficulties.
Hearing loss is associated not only with mental health conditions but also with numerous physical health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, anaemia, chronic kidney disease, rheumatoid arthritis, sleep apnea, balance problems and an increased risk of falls.
British Deaf Association
The British Deaf Association (BDA) provide further statistics:
- It is estimated that there are about nine million people in the UK who are deaf or hard of hearing.
- Deafness is the third most common disability in the world, but you probably wouldn’t spot a deaf person in a crowd.
- Most deaf people don’t view their deafness as a disability or as a problem that should be fixed. For many of them, it’s a natural part of a cultural experience that they share with friends, both deaf and hearing.
- Most deaf people who use sign language use British Sign Language, (BSL). It’s a rich combination of hand gestures, facial expressions and body language. BSL isn’t simply English with hand signs, it is a different language with its own grammar and sentence construction. While you would say “what is your name?” in English, a BSL user would sign, “your name, what?”
- You might assume that sign language across the world is the same – but actually British Sign Language is totally different to other sign languages such as American Sign Language or Japanese Sign Language.
- Even the best lip-readers only catch less than half of the words said. To them, natural facial expressions and hand gestures can really help.
- Nine in every ten deaf children are born to hearing parents, but only ten per cent of those parents will learn sign language to be able to communicate fully with their child.
- As a deaf person, you rely on your eyes for clues to what people are saying or feeling, and you rely on other clues like vibrations on floors to be aware of what is going on around you.
World Health Organization (WHO) statistics
- By 2050 nearly 2.5 billion people are projected to have some degree of hearing loss, and at least 700 million will require hearing rehabilitation.
- Over 1 billion young adults risk permanent, avoidable hearing loss due to unsafe listening practices.
- An annual additional investment of around £1 per person is needed to scale up ear and hearing care services globally.
- Over a 10-year period, this promises a return of nearly £16 for every £0.75 invested.
- Over 5% of the world’s population – or 430 million people – require rehabilitation to address their ‘disabling’ hearing loss (432 million adults and 34 million children).
- ‘Disabling’ hearing loss refers to hearing loss greater than 35 decibels (dB) in the better hearing ear.
- Nearly 80% of people with disabling hearing loss live in low- and middle-income countries.
- The prevalence of hearing loss increases with age, among those older than 60 years, over 25% are affected by disabling hearing loss.
Experience in the US
The Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) is one of a few national surveys that regularly collects data identifying the American population of persons with hearing loss or deafness.
Estimates from the SIPP indicate that fewer than 1 in 20 Americans are currently deaf or hard of hearing. In round numbers, nearly 10,000,000 persons are hard of hearing and close to 1,000,000 are functionally deaf. More than half of all persons with hearing loss or deafness are 65 years or older and less than 4% are under 18 years of age. However, these findings are limited to those who report difficulty hearing “normal conversation” and do not include the larger population of persons with hearing loss for which only hearing outside the range and circumstances of normal conversation is affected.
Impact on Older People
Unassisted hearing loss significantly impacts older people, leading to social isolation, depression, reduced quality of life and loss of independence and mobility – particularly, the increased risk of a bad fall.
Hearinglink says that hearing loss increases sharply with age – nearly 42% of those aged over 50 years have hearing loss, rising to about 71% of people aged over 70. About 400,000 older people live in care homes and are disproportionately affected by hearing loss, with approximately 75% of residents having a hearing problem.
When hearing loss is unassisted, those with a mild hearing loss are twice as likely to develop dementia as people without hearing loss, whilst those with moderate hearing loss are three times more likely to develop dementia, and those with severe hearing loss are five times more likely to develop dementia. There is evidence that cognitive decline can be addressed through early detection of hearing loss and the provision of amplification.
According to Deafunity.org, the following beliefs that most people have, are simply not true:
- Hearing aids restore hearing loss.
- Deafness only affects older people.
- All hearing loss is the same.
- Deaf people can’t go to the cinema or watch TV.
Signs and Symbols
Fingerspelling is a method of spelling words using hand movements. The fingerspelling alphabet is used in sign language to spell out names of people and places for which there is no sign. Fingerspelling is an alternative method for the deaf to communicate besides sign language. As the name suggests, it involves spelling out the letters of the alphabet. So you have distinct differences in manual alphabets and hand signs for sign languages in Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Devanagari and so on.
Makaton is a language programme that uses signs together with speech and symbols to enable people to communicate. It supports the development of essential communication skills such as attention, listening, comprehension, memory and expressive speech and language.
Sources and Further Reading
- https://www.hearinglink.org/your-hearing/about-hearing/facts-about-deafness-hearing-loss/ https://deafunity.org/article_interview/debunked-myths-about-deafness/
- https://www.ageuk.org.uk/information-advice/health-wellbeing/conditions-illnesses/hearing-loss/ https://www.british-sign.co.uk/
- Safe listening devices and systems: a WHO-ITU standard, a free downloadable pdf: https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/280085/9789241515276-eng.pdf
Audiological exam using an audiometer. Hearing Loss Prevention, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.