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The Hidden Side of Hearing Loss

by Louise W. Rice

For many, hearing loss doesn’t just affect the ability to hear sound. Whether it is gradual or sudden, like any other disability, hearing loss involves life-altering changes which can significantly impact a person’s mental and emotional well-being.

Whether or not you have experienced it yourself, it can help to understand the hidden impact of hearing loss. If you are hearing-impaired, there are practical steps you can take to help navigate life with more ease, for example, asking your doctor about treatment options and support.

If you are based in Saskatchewan, HearCanada offers a range of useful services, including information and advice on hearing loss in addition to hearing aids, in addition to cleaning, checking, and maintenance services.

How Common Is Hearing Loss?

Around 1.5 billion people worldwide live with hearing loss, just over 20% of the global population. There are three main types: sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL), which is often permanent. Conductive hearing loss (frequently treatable) and mixed hearing loss,  a combination of the two.

While gradual, sensorineural hearing loss is typically associated with older generations (due to cell degeneration), there appears to be a growing number of younger people at risk from conductive hearing loss through exposure to high volumes from sources like loud music.

Invisible Disabilities

If this figure appears somewhat surprising, it may be because, in many ways, hearing loss is an invisible disability. It is not always immediately obvious that a person has hearing loss, especially when there are no visual cues (such as visible hearing aids) to suggest they are.

Not all deaf or hearing-impaired people wear visible hearing aids or devices, and some may even avoid wearing one (even when they need it) due to the stigma associated with hearing loss and disability in general.

Risk Factors for Mental and Emotional Health

In a 2017 study, a link was found between hearing loss and increased psychological distress (hearing aid use helped decrease this). Hearing loss is a major life change that can contribute to feelings of anxiety, depression, anger, and grief. Tinnitus sufferers are especially at risk of suicidal behavior and thoughts.

Hearing loss can even have an impact on physical well-being, particularly in certain life-threatening situations, such as not being able to hear a smoke detector, or in everyday scenarios, such as crossing the street. Hearing loss may also be the result of another health condition, and when the body is put under increased stress from illness, this can have a negative impact on a person’s mental and emotional state.

Loneliness and Social Isolation

Studies show that hearing loss is linked to high levels of social isolation, a major cause of anxiety and depression. While widespread loneliness isn’t a new concept, certain aspects of modern life (such as negative experiences with social media) have a tendency to highlight this.

When a person experiences hearing loss, they effectively lose a lifeline to the outside world. Even in a crowded space, being unable to comprehend what another person is saying can contribute to feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Risk of Discrimination

Stigma and misconceptions about hearing loss can lead to discrimination, negatively impacting the mental and emotional health of people with hearing loss, even to the point where they feel unable to disclose their disability to others or ask for the support they need.

People with hearing loss may be excluded from educational or career opportunities, and some experience abuse or bullying. This can happen for a number of reasons, but when disabled people are targeted, it is often a bid for power and control over someone the persecutor sees as vulnerable and weak.

The effects of hearing loss go beyond auditory functioning, reaching into every aspect of a person’s life. Someone with hearing loss might experience isolation due to difficulties with communication and become further discouraged from socializing, contributing to feelings of loneliness.

A Case for Compassion Training

Humans are social creatures who require the community to flourish, but all too often, hearing-impaired people are ostracized, even in supposedly diverse environments like workplaces. This often arises from a lack of empathy and understanding on behalf of hearing people, the capacity to imagine another person’s difficulties, and show compassion.

In April 2023, a social experiment was conducted in the UK where office workers were fitted with specially-molded earplugs. In the experiment, participants found that they not only missed key work-related details – they also felt excluded from the social side of work life by not being able to hear conversations.

Even without experiments like this, abstract concepts such as loneliness are universally relatable and can help generate greater empathy and understanding, even for people with very different life experiences.

While diversity and inclusion training can be useful, it is only part of the story. It can even lead to situations where “othering” occurs: where people of marginalized groups (such as disabled people) tend to be viewed only in the context of their differences, rather than the unique set of qualities they bring to the table as an equal, valued member of the team.

Hidden Strengths, Visible People

While disability can make a person vulnerable in terms of physical and/or cognitive capacity, those who discriminate against hearing-impaired people are frequently mistaken: having to navigate a world primarily built for non-disabled people requires inner strength and resilience.

If you have hearing loss, it’s important to know that while there may be times when you feel isolated, help is available. There are many people with similar (and even not-so-similar) experiences who are willing to offer support. The expectation to stay strong can feel exhausting, but you do not always have to go it alone.

In addition to discussing hearing loss and disability with non-disabled listeners (who may also benefit from learning about accommodations such as communication techniques and signing), sharing stories with other hearing-impaired people can offer a wealth of valuable wisdom while helping you reconnect to a sense of community, support, and well-being that everyone is worthy of.

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