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Hearing Loss Disability

What is hearing loss?

When someone has difficulty hearing, it can be because they have a hearing loss. A hearing loss can occur for many different reasons such as being born with it, age, exposure to loud noises, different illnesses and viruses, and more. Hearing loss can vary from person-to-person with different amounts of hearing loss ranging from very being minimal and hardly noticeable to completely deaf in one or both ears. 

How do we categorize hearing loss?

Hearing loss is categorized by severity based on a person’s ability to hear test beeps, also called pure tone thresholds, at different frequencies. Pure tone thresholds are the softest volume a person can just barely detect at different frequencies. This is a test completed by an audiologist and the final result is called an “audiogram.” The four categories for hearing loss on an audiogram are mild, moderate, severe, and profound. 

In addition to hearing loss categories and pure tone thresholds, audiologists will also test speech understanding. For some people with hearing loss speech is loud enough, however,  audiologists are making sure that it is clear and understandable. They do this because sometimes people have a hard time understanding what is being said even when speech is loud enough.

Does hearing loss qualify as a disability? 

According to the American Community Survey (ACS), which has six basic disability identifiers, a hearing disability is defined as being deaf or having serious difficulty hearing. Using this definition we can assume that anyone who is deaf or struggles to hear has a disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) legally qualifies any kind of hearing loss if it limits your ability to do the things you normally would do. However, to be considered “legally” deaf, most states state that your hearing loss must fall into the severe or profound category in the better ear. The Social Security Administration (SSA) also requires a certain amount of hearing loss, usually profound hearing loss in the better ear, to be met before qualifying for compensation. Hearing loss can be categorized as an “invisible” disability because it may not be immediately obvious when someone has it. 

Can I get social security benefits for my hearing loss?

To qualify for social security, wearing hearing aids alone does not automatically qualify as a disability.  It depends on the amount of hearing loss that a person has and their ability to participate in activities, unrestricted. It may also depend on a person’s income and other state factors for qualifying for disability. The Social Security Administration uses something called the Blue Book to determine if someone qualifies for disability. The Blue Book is a medical guide that says someone has hearing loss when they cannot hear really loud sounds like a lawnmower or a motorcycle. The Blue Book also says that someone has a hearing loss when their understanding of words in quiet places is under 40%. 

Does having hearing loss in one ear qualify as a disability?

Sometimes, people can have hearing loss in only one ear. They may have severe difficulty hearing out of one ear but the other ear can hear fine. Even though someone may still be able to hear in one ear, hearing loss in one ear can make it hard to understand speech when it is noisy, locate where sound is coming from, and cause difficulty when trying to communicate with someone who is standing on the side of the ear with the hearing loss. Being unable to hear in one ear can make it hard in school or work places, which means the ACS and the ADA would qualify hearing loss in one ear as a disability. Even though the ACS or ADA would call that a disability, you would not be eligible for disability compensation through the SSA because they look at a person’s ability in their better ear. Even if someone was completely deaf in one ear, SSA would consider someone with one “normal” hearing ear to not have a disability. 

What are ways to treat hearing loss?

Hearing aids are great assistive devices to help treat hearing aids. Hearing aids are fit by an audiologist or a hearing aid dispenser based on your individual hearing test. This assures that the hearing aids are fit properly for the amount of hearing loss that you have. Other technology that connects through Bluetooth can work with your hearing aids to hear better on the phone, through the tv, or in restaurants. 

When hearing aids don’t help a person hear better, they may be eligible for a cochlear implant. A cochlear implant is like a hearing aid where it helps you to hear better but it has two parts. One part goes inside the ear and is surgically placed by an Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor or an Otologist which is a special kind of ear doctor. The other part is called a processor and looks like a hearing aid that goes over your ear. The processor gathers sound information and sends it to the part that is surgically placed. Because this is a different way to hear, it can take a long time to get used to it, like months or even years. A person with a cochlear implant is eligible for Blue Book benefits within the first year post-implantation. The next year, they may still qualify if their speech understanding is less than 60%.

In order to qualify for a cochlear implant, hearing aids must not be working well enough to help someone hear. When that happens, an audiologist will do different tests like checking for hearing loss, trying different types of hearing technologies, and repeating words or sentences in quiet and with background noise. After all of those tests, an audiologist can see if a hearing aid will work or not. If not, they can recommend that a person should get a cochlear implant instead. 

What is the impact of untreated hearing loss?

Having a hearing loss can really affect a person’s daily lifestyle. It may cause a person to feel alone and stop doing activities and hobbies like going out to eat or socializing with friends because they are having a hard time hearing. This may lead a person to feel down or depressed. Not being able to hear can also make it harder for someone to think or solve problems. This can be because a person is using all of their “resources” to focus on “what” is being said, instead of using higher level thinking to categorize and understand information.

Having a hearing loss that is not being treated is a risk factor for dementia and is related to cognitive decline. When someone can’t hear, it becomes really hard to remember things later because you are working really hard to pay attention. 

Finally, having a hearing loss that isn’t being treated can lead to an increased risk for falling. There are three reasons for this. One, a person with untreated hearing loss may not be aware of the environment around them and could fall against pets or other people. Second, the brain has to work harder to hear and understand things so it can’t focus as much on spatial awareness. Finally, hearing loss in general can change a person’s ability to be spatially aware. 

What is deaf culture?

There is a group of people who are deaf or have serious difficulty hearing (also known as people who are hard-of-hearing) that celebrate their unique experiences as a result of their hearing loss. Like many other cultures, deaf culture can be hard to understand if you are not a part of it. All over the world, communities of people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing share common languages like American Sign Language in the United States, experiences, and values. In the deaf community it is really important to preserve and maintain their way of life. 

Many people in deaf culture believe it is important to have access to visual information, like “talking” with each other using sign language. There are also many rules when communicating with people in the deaf community such as maintaining consistent eye contact and not interrupting when someone is signing. Like other cultures, deaf culture has its own art, “music” and poetry that share their traditions, values, and experiences. One of the most important things to remember about the deaf community is that deafness is viewed as a difference of experience instead of a disability. 

Living With Hearing Loss

Recent data shows that 1 in 8 people have a hearing loss in the United States and that men are twice as likely to have hearing loss over women. Due to this large population, there are many professionals and professional organizations that exist to help people with hearing loss. A good start is to make an appointment with a local audiologist for diagnosis and treatment options for hearing loss. An audiologist may also know where your state/city’s chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America (HHLA) meets or how to join. The HHLA is a group created for people with hearing loss to provide support, information, and advocacy. 

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