Causes of Deafness
Technological advances have provided many new options for deaf people, but not without some controversy. The inability to hear, or deafness, can occur from a number of reasons, including birth, age, noise, illness, medications, chemicals, or physical trauma, such as head injury. The level of deafness can range person-to-person, from the mild to the profound. Hearing loss can also be genetic. When there are other medical problems involved beyond the loss of hearing alone, this genetic deafness is called syndromic. Nonsyndromic genetic deafness is when no other medical problems are associated at the same time, and it is the loss of hearing alone which affects the patient. There are many illnesses that can cause deafness, such as measles, meningitis, mumps, autoimmune disease, fetal alcohol syndrome, some sexually transmitted diseases, and tumors.
Hearing loss that occurs before the patient is able to develop and learn language is called prelingual deafness. Post-lingual deafness occurs after the patient has already acquired the knowledge of language. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children be tested regularly for hearing difficulties, from birth through the years between until high school. Half of the deafness cases from outside influences could be prevented by certain immunizations and avoiding loud noise exposure.1
New Technology for the Deaf
American Sign Language
American Sign Language (ASL) is the primary sign language used by the deaf. It uses the hands, face, and torso, as well as finger spelling, to communicate words and phrases. In ASL, the hands are used in a particular shape, sometimes with motion, with a particular orientation on the body. Some of the signs use the eyebrows, nose, head, torso, and eyes, instead of the hands. It is an evolving language which continues to gain new, widely accepted gestures in the same way that other languages take on new words for the modern day.2
Products to Assist the Deaf
There are many products on the market which are meant to assist the hearing impaired and deaf. Warning devices, with flashing lights, and closed captioning are common tools. People are encouraged to contribute by providing proper captions in a variety of languages for online videos while automatic speech recognition and automatic captioning software continues to improve. In other situations, such as the broadcast of official functions, an interpreter might stand behind someone giving a speech and translate the words into ASL for those in the audience or tuned in who are hearing impaired or deaf. Hearing aids have improved in size and clarity, but they are not able to provide any help when the patient is completely deaf. Lip reading and sign language can be boosted with technological advances. Some people use video relay service and video remote interpreting.
Telecommunications devices for the deaf (TDD) are like word processors that send typed text over phone lines. Currently, text messaging, SMS, videophones, and other internet services are starting to take the place of TDD. Cochlear implants can stimulate the cochlear nerve artificially, with electrical impulses, but they are expensive and leave users at higher risk of meningitis. The meningitis vaccine would be recommended for those who wish to use cochlear implants on a regular basis. Cochlear implants have been found to be particularly helpful if they are implanted in children who are at an age where they are young enough to still acquire effective speech.3
The implementation of cochlear implants is not without controversy. When implanted in older people, the new sounds may be overwhelming and hard to interpret due to the lack of experience with processing sounds. Deafness is also not necessarily a problem that needs to be fixed, and it can negatively impact the “deaf culture”. The cochlear implant reduces the need to use ASL, and that “undermines the struggle” for those who need ASL to be recognized as a language and who are unable or unwilling to utilize the newer technology.
Deaf activists have concerns over the new genetic advancements in research, which could lead to disturbing new types of interventions. There is even a new implant now that would be wired directly into the brainstem. This idea does not appeal to everyone. With the risk of infection from implants, and the fact that “normal” speech may still not be possible for those who receive the implants later in life, there is ongoing controversy over the new technologies.4
Deaf culture views deafness as a “difference in human experience” and not a disability. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognizes deaf culture. The “Deaf” identity has diversity, but sign language is part of this culture. There are also shared values and beliefs, such as anti-discrimination and a positive attitude towards deafness. Those who remain deaf, whether by choice or otherwise, in the face of new technologies should not be discriminated against for living their own life.5
Learn more about the impact of pain relievers on hearing loss.