Helen Keller once shared that blindness separates people from things, but deafness separates people from other people. While it’s difficult to decide if the loss of one physical sense is qualitatively worse than another, it’s definitely hard to deny the difference in public awareness of between these conditions. After all, hearing loss is considered the ‘invisible disability’ for a reason, and despite the nearly 20% of Americans who report some degree of it, it is still rarely discussed beyond conversations with one’s closest friends and family.
This is a trend worth addressing as mounting research continues to reveal that hearing loss has far-reaching effects for those afflicted and the people living and working with them. While the same may be true with similar disabilities, such as impaired eyesight, the mere obviousness of them (i.e. wearing glasses or having a white cane) allows for better accommodation and acknowledgement of someone’s situation. The shame and embarrassment that can accompany hearing loss are some of the major reasons sufferers are reluctant to acknowledge their disability and seek out appropriate treatment and care.
As with all issues involving a lack of general awareness is a pervasive set of misguided assumptions. This is not so surprising, as it’s difficult to become educated on a subject that is rarely discussed. One of the more common misassumptions about hearing loss is that you don’t need hearing aids until you’re practically deaf. Many people think that if people aren’t fully yelling in lieu of speaking to them then their hearing is “just fine.”
Perhaps a more clear picture of the consequences that even mild hearing loss can cause is in order.
One of the most clear results of hearing loss was uncovered by The Better Hearing Institute, via their national survey aimed at quantifying the impact that hearing loss had on individual’s lives and income. In their study of over 40,000 households affected by hearing loss, they found that annual household earnings were negatively impacted up to $30,000, depending on the severity of impairment. Nationally, they calculated the impact of America’s more than 34 million hearing impaired individuals who do not currently use hearing aids to be in excess of $18 billion of unrealized taxes. What’s more, the study found the use of hearing instruments mitigated this lost income by 90 to 100% for milder hearing loss, and by 65 to 77% for more severe hearing loss.
While comparing annual lost wages to the intrinsic value of the ability to hear is in no way a fair comparison, it is helpful to know what could be saved by taking care of hearing loss, and the tangible costs at stake by ignoring it.
But what about those intangible elements?
Well, it appears those have been studied too. The Royal National Institute for Deaf People did a study on families with a member afflicted with hearing loss, in an effort to gain clarity on the impact hearing loss can have on interpersonal relationships. Their findings were extensive. The most common difficulties reported among couples and families navigating a hearing impairment involved the daily frustrations that arise from misinterpreted comments, having to repeat oneself or ask for repetition, needing to curtail favorite habits like going to movies without subtitles or enjoying events that might have loud crowds, and imbalances in the division of labor as the partner with hearing loss becomes less capable of interacting on the phone or with others who aren’t aware of his or her impairment.
The families had a wide array of answers to how they coped with these changes in their lives, but the overall sentiment was one of burden- both on the hearing impaired members, and those who love them. As a hinderance to our ability to connect and fully enjoy life with others, the loss of even some hearing has effects measuring far beyond dollars.
Despite these findings, it’s true that not even the best designed study could account for the depth of value hearing provides. The ability to hear the inflections in the voices of people we love most, and to enjoy social engagements without confusion are hard to quantify. Perhaps these research conclusions can provide our rational minds with enough impetus to seek out the treatment or tune-up we’ve been ignoring, and ultimately deliver the clarity of sound we’ve forgotten how much we missed. And perhaps our appreciation of the technology that delivers these sounds will move us to bring it up to anyone who’ll listen, raising awareness one eyebrow at a time.