Information About Americans With Hearing Loss

There are an estimated 30,000,000 people in the United States with a hearing loss, and the aging of our population is rapidly increasing that number. Approximately 5-10% have a profound loss. Studies show that people with hearing loss, regardless of its degree, have much lower employment and income levels, in large part because of less education. A survey done by the state of Michigan, for example, showed that only 13% of its residents with hearing loss attend college and the average person with a severe loss reads at a sixth grade level. Moreover, fewer than half such Michiganders have a full-time job, and consequently the median family income for these individuals is about $25,000. Thus these people are clearly disadvantaged.

But Americans with a hearing loss are not a homogeneous group. There are multiple subcategories depending on such factors as age of onset, language preference, place of residence, membership in the Deaf community, and ability to understand spoken English. They can be grouped into four broad categories:

1. Those who lose their hearing at an early age, have a severe loss, and prefer communicating by American Sign Language
2. Those who lose their hearing before age 50 (all levels of loss) and prefer communicating by spoken English
3. Those who lose their hearing as senior citizens, have a progressively increasing loss, and prefer an oral language (usually English)
4. All others

The first group is known as the Deaf community. Recognized as a minority population, they capitalize the D in the word "deaf" to denote their separateness from all other deaf people, and have well-defined cultural mores. They prefer communicating by American Sign Language, often use sign language interpreters in various settings, may be opposed to cochlear implants, and tend to support the National Association for the Deaf.

The second group ranges from those who call themselves "hard of hearing" to those who are deaf. Their common bond is that they prefer to communicate in spoken and written English. Unlike the Deaf community, these individuals often feel misunderstood and unsupported by hearing people. Many deny their loss; however, an increasing number are beginning to use aids such as FM loops and similar technological devices to improve sound reception. They are most likely to support the Alexander Graham Bell Association and Self Help for the Hard of Hearing.

The third group is the largest of the three and is growing rapidly as Americans age. These people lose their hearing slowly and often deny any disability, either because they're unaware of it or embarrassed by it. Consequently they miss a lot of conversation and have problems with telephones, doorbells, movies and television. Many of them belong to Self Help for the Hard of Hearing or the Association of Late Deafened Adults.

The last group is a mixture of many types. It includes people whose hearing loss ranges from minimal to total, with onset at various ages, and who use a variety of sign or non-English spoken languages. It should be noted that signing in other languages is just as different from American Sign Language as spoken Spanish, for example, is from spoken English.