We find out about life as a deaf teenager from Madalena, 16. Plus expert tips and advice from Sarah Summerfield of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID).
There are 35,000 deaf or hard of hearing children in the UK, and over 90 per cent are born to hearing parents with little or no experience of deafness themselves.
Like 16 year old Madalena. She was born deaf into a hearing family, and wears a hearing aid in her right ear to help her hear some sounds.
“Being a deaf person in a hearing world is normal to me because I do everything that hearing people do like going to school, going shopping, chatting with friends and going out, ” says Madalena.
How your ear works
Your ear is made up of three parts. Sound waves are collected by the outer ear, and pass through to the middle ear, where your eardrum makes them vibrate.
These tiny vibrations then enter the inner ear, or cochlea, a small tube filled with liquid and tiny hairs (nerves). It’s a delicate mechanism, so when it doesn’t work as it should, there can be a number of reasons.
Causes of deafness
What causes deafness in the first place? Basically, there are two types; conductive deafness and sensory-neural deafness.
Conductive deafness means that sound can’t pass freely to the inner ear. It can be caused by build up of ear wax, an ear infection or glue ear in babies. With this type of hearing loss, sound becomes quieter but not distorted. It’s usually temporary.
Sensory-neural deafness means the tiny hairs in the inner ear (cochlea) are not processing sound effectively. So the hearing is not only reduced, it can also be distorted.
Sometimes it’s caused by infectious disease such as rubella or meningitis, birth complications, or regular exposure to loud noise.
Often the cause of deafness is unknown, so it’s very important that deafness in children is diagnosed as soon as possible.
By the age of three, hearing children have a vocabulary of about 700 words, while a child with undetected hearing loss only has about 25 words.
Madalena feels that being deaf has some drawbacks, but not many.
“There are some things that I can’t do like listening to music, talking on the telephone and talking with a person behind the counter in a shop,” she says.
“But I go to a deaf school, which I love as I like to learn there because I get full support from my teachers. Also I can chat to my friends and sometimes I get to miss a lesson because I have an audiology appointment, which is great!”
Don’t believe what you hear
There are several daft myths about deafness but one of the most common is that if you shout, the deaf person can hear you better! Think about it. Do you like being shouted at? And also, when you shout, your voice becomes distorted. It’s far more important to speak clearly.
The other myth is that deaf people only listen selectively, a bit like somehow ‘not hearing’ that the washing up needs doing but always hearing that there’s one more slice of pizza. That myth isn’t true either.
Remember that sensory-neural deafness is complex. It can mean the person might only hear certain pitches. Or the background noise may be too loud for them to understand. Or they might just be very tired from concentrating on lip-reading.
Make yourself heard
Sarah Summerfield, of RNID, says that deaf people don’t all communicate in the same way.
“Some people with milder hearing loss use a hearing aid, depending on how noisy their surroundings are. People who are severely deaf may use both a hearing aid, and sign language. Some profoundly deaf people prefer to just use British Sign Language (BSL) as hearing aids are of little benefit to them,” she says.
If you’re not sure of the best way to communicate – ask!
Madalena adds: “Don’t give up if you don’t understand each other at first, as you can always find a different way to communicate, like writing things down.”
Madalena sometimes gets stressed because she misses information that hearing people take for granted.
“It was announced on the speakers that the tube would be going in a different direction and most of the passengers got off the tube, but I didn’t because I couldn’t hear the announcement and I missed my stop!” She remembers.
She also gets fed up when there are no subtitles on TV: “I can’t understand what’s being said and I often have to ask my family – who are all hearing – what’s going on, and then tell me but it’s not ideal.”
Top ten talking tips
Sarah, of RNID, has some top tips on communicating with deaf or hard of hearing people:
- Even if someone is wearing a hearing aid, it doesn't mean that they can hear you. Ask if they need to lip-read you.
- Make sure you have the listener's attention before you start speaking.
- Speak clearly but not too slowly, and don't exaggerate your lip movements as this can make it difficult for them to read your lips – use natural facial expressions and gestures.
- If you're talking to a deaf person and a hearing person, don't just focus on the hearing person.
- Don't shout. It's uncomfortable for a hearing aid user and it looks aggressive.
- If someone doesn't understand what you've said, don't just keep repeating it. Try saying it in a different way.
- Find a suitable place to talk, with good lighting, away from noise and distractions.
- Remember not to turn your face away from a deaf person. Always turn back to your listener so they can see your face.
- Check that the person you're talking to can follow you. Be patient and take the time to communicate properly.
- Use plain language and don't waffle. Avoid jargon and unfamiliar abbreviations.
Feel the noise – protect your hearing
Going to music clubs and gigs can seriously damage your hearing. A recent survey by the RNID revealed that 90 per cent of young people had experienced tinnitus (ringing in the ears or head) and dulled hearing, and 58 per cent didn’t realise they were signs of hearing damage. A lot of this is because of loud music exposure.
The organisation Don’t Lose the Music aims to help young people protect their hearing. But they’re not about turning the music down. Instead they have a huge range of specially designed earplugs that filter sound rather than blocking it out.
And by the way, don’t think you can ‘toughen up your ears’ by repeated exposure to loud music! It doesn’t work like that.
As Ministry of Sound DJ Allister Whitehead says: “People do get tinnitus and take it from me – I know a lot of people who got it. It is the last thing you need in your life and you never get rid of it. Do you want to be able hear in five years time?"
If you’re worried about your hearing it’s always best to get it checked out, rather than hoping it will go away on its own. Your GP will look in your ears using an otoscope. Or you might be asked to listen to sounds using headphones.
If any problems are detected, you may be referred to an audiology clinic or the ear, nose and throat (ENT) department of your local hospital for further tests.
It’s pretty obvious that being deaf isn’t going to stop Madalena from doing what she wants to do.
“One day I would like to join a deaf football club as one of my friends plays in one and it looks like fun,” she says.
After her GCSE exams in English, maths and ICT, Madalena plans to study travel and tourism: “Being deaf won’t stop me from one day setting up a travel business that will help other deaf people to travel the world with others who are deaf, and have access to interpreters who can interpret different languages into British Sign Language (BSL).”
She reckons there are a few advantages to being deaf too: “I can sleep without hearing any sounds at night, and no one can disturb me while I study in public unless they tap on my shoulder!”