by Jessica Niemela
Contrary to the way we often understand it, the burden of hearing loss is not carried exclusively by older adults. I am here to share with you today that hearing loss is in fact a condition that shapes the lives of our young people across the globe. In March 2020, the World Health Organization has reported that out of 466 million people worldwide with hearing loss, 34 million of these people are children. I would like to briefly state the need and evidence-based impact of 1) early identification and treatment of hearing loss; 2) support systems in place for deaf/hard of hearing youth in the school settings; and 3) social and community development amongst deaf/hard of hearing youth.
Early identification of hearing loss and appropriate treatment before 6 months of age are the very first steps in order to provide access to either listening and spoken language and/or sign language for a child. Furthermore, when a child is identified with a hearing loss and treated in a timely manner, the outcomes for literacy rates and psychosocial development are optimal. Newborn hearing screening programs started in the 1990’s and are now considered a standard program in many developed countries. There are, however, still developed countries that do not have national standards for delivering early hearing screening programs, and the situation in developing countries is even more complicated. In Canada, for example, according to the Canadian Infant Task Force, early hearing programs are insufficient in seven provinces and territories. There is a growing body of research that demonstrates that efficient newborn hearing screening programs are not only critically beneficial to the child and their families with hearing loss, they are also very cost-effective to the economy. The argument is simple: If a child has access to developing language then they have a better chance to be a productive member of society as a result of better language skills and quality of life.
When children with hearing loss go to mainstreamed schools, research shows that they benefit greatly from remote microphone systems in the classroom, support from a hearing resource teacher, and other services such as live captioning or a sign language interpreter. When normal hearing children are learning they need the signal to be significantly louder than the room’s noise level in order to learn effectively, compared to adults. Children with hearing loss need that signal to be even louder to get the same outcomes as their normal hearing peers and hence the need for remote microphone systems. The hearing resource teacher, also known as the teacher for the deaf and hard of hearing, plays a pivotal role for the student with hearing loss where they are available. They not only support the student’s use of classroom equipment, but they are a mentor who teaches the hard of hearing student fundamental self-advocacy skills that are essential to their academic success and adult life. For students who have a greater degree of hearing loss or use sign language, their access to learning can be further increased with use of live captioning and/or a sign language interpreter.
As humans we are social beings, and we thrive when we feel like we belong. All over the world we are starting to see the growth of hard of hearing communities, which is similar to their Deaf community counterparts. There are national and international organizations such as the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association, the Hearing loss Association of America, and the International Federation of Hard of Hearing Young People, who share the common mission: to bring hard of hearing individuals together. Social and community development for children with hearing loss can come in the form of schools, activities, and events where they can interact with their hard of hearing peers. Children, therefore, do not have to experience hearing loss in isolation, and through these programs, they can learn how to advocate for themselves, develop good communication strategies, gain friendships, increase self-esteem, establish self-identity, and foster a sense of belonging.
As a person who grew up living with hearing loss and now in my career as a pediatric audiologist, I have the privilege of experiencing and guiding families through their own child’s journey through hearing loss. I have witnessed the poor outcomes of a child who has been identified later in life, with no additional support at school and no hard of hearing community to turn to. On the flip side, I have witnessed the positive outcomes of a child who has been identified early, who is well connected to her hearing resource teacher, and has a strong sense of identity partly due to her hard of hearing community involvement. It is critical that we advocate for the hearing health of our future generations to come. When we set up our youth for success it is better for the individual, society, and for the economy.
Canadian Infant Task Force (2019). 2019 report card on Canadian early hearing detection and intervention programs. Speech-Language & Audiology Canada, Canadian Academy of Audiology.
Hintermair, M. (2000). Hearing impairment, social networks, and coping: The need for families with hearing-impaired children to relate to other parents and to hearing-impaired adults. American Annals of the Deaf, 41-53.
Israelite, N., Ower, J., Goldstein, G. (2002). Hard-of-hearing adolescents and identity construction: Influences of school experiences, peers, and teachers. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 7(2), 134-148.
The Joint Committee on Infant Hearing (2019). Year 2019 position statement: Principles and guidelines for early hearing detection and intervention programs. The Journal of Early Hearing Detection and Intervention Programs, 4(2), 1-44.
World Health Organization (2017). Global costs of unaddressed hearing loss and cost-effectiveness of interventions: a WHO report.
World Health Organization (2020). Deafness and hearing loss. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/deafness-and-hearing-loss
Zanin, J., & Rance, G. (2016). Functional hearing in the classroom: assistive listening devices for students with hearing impairment in a mainstream school setting. International Journal of Audiology, 55(12), 723-729.