Introduction to Hearing Loss and Deafness

Introduction

Spoken language is fundamental to our everyday communications and forms an important part of most interactions within the university setting.  It is worth considering the impact deafness can have on a student’s access to learning.  Many aspects of learning and the wider university experience are affected.  These include potential difficulties with: Listening, attention and concentration, literacy, language development, auditory memory, processing time, incidental learning, social skills, self-esteem and learning style.  It is important to consider the approaches to teaching and assessment and strive to develop inclusive practices that will not only enable deaf students to participate fully, but will support the learning experience of all students.

Terminology

There are various terms used to describe deaf people and often people experience uncertainty when seeking the appropriate terminology.  Ideally, we would adopt the terminology preferred by the individual we are working with, however having this discussion is not always practical and could compromise discretion.  

In the UK, the term 'deaf' is used to refer to all levels of deafness.  People who describe themselves as deaf are likely to be profoundly deaf.  People who have retained a considerable degree of hearing might refer to themselves as 'partially deaf' or may refer to their level of hearing as mild to moderate.  Those who refer to themselves as 'Deaf' with a capital D view themselves as culturally deaf; generally sign language will be their first language and they will identify as part of the Deaf community.  People who have experienced hearing loss throughout life are less likely to share this sense of cultural identity and may describe themselves as 'deafened' or 'hard of hearing', with the latter term being more common among older people. 

Terms that should generally be avoided include 'the deaf', which defines people through their disability and also 'hearing impaired'.  The term 'hearing impaired' is often used by medical professionals, but can be disliked by many deaf people do not view themselves as having an impairment.

Variation

There is a lot of variation in levels of hearing loss, ranging from mild to profound.  Someone with mild hearing loss would have difficulty following normal conversation in a noisy room or understanding someone who is softly spoken.  Individuals with mild hearing loss tend not to wear hearing aids as they can amplify background noise and distort sound.  A student with mild hearing loss might have difficulty in seminars where there are multiple group discussions taking place.  They could also miss out on input from their peers in whole class discussions and would benefit from contributions being repeated back by the tutor.  A student with mild hearing loss might not disclose a disability and could therefore remain hidden.  Inclusive teaching practices such as summarising key teaching points will benefit all students and remove some of the disadvantage associated with mild hearing loss.  

Someone with moderate/partial hearing loss will have retained a considerable degree of hearing but may have difficulty understanding direct clear conversation in a quiet room.  With the use of a hearing aid, it may not be apparent that a student has a hearing loss.  However, they may also rely on the visual context to follow speech.  A student with moderate hearing loss may have difficulty following a lecture and could miss instructions that are not backed up with written information.  The disability service offers supports to facilitate communication and make learning more accessible to these students.

A person with severe hearing loss will be unable to hear someone talking to them directly.  Consideration will have to be given to the communication support needs of these students in all spoken interactions and necessary adjustments made.  Students may require the use of communication supports such as interpreters or notetakers.  This can be arranged through the disability service.

Individuals with profound hearing loss will be unable to hear loud noises and are unlikely to benefit from hearing aids.  In some cases these students would use sign language rather than oral communication.  Students who do not use sign language would use a note taker in place of an interpreter.  The student should be consulted to check their individual support requirements.  In addition to teaching support, consideration should be given to safety as these students may be unable to hear sounds alerting them to danger.