About Hearing Loss - Royal Institute for Deaf & Blind Children

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About Hearing Loss

Learning that you or a loved one might be deaf or hard of hearing can be a confusing time. We have a community of people and professionals at RIDBC who can help you on your journey forward.

Marc Valente

Your first stop for learning about hearing loss

While there are some common causes, the experience of hearing loss is unique to each person. We’ve answered some common questions below, but it’s always best to talk to our team – we can tailor an individual program for you to help you reach your goals.

Deafness is defined as having profound hearing loss, which implies very little or no hearing. Deaf can also be a cultural identity that describes a community of people who are deaf, their shared experiences and language.

Hearing loss can be described according to its degree:

  • Mild: you cannot hear sounds that are quieter than 21-40 decibels. This can be compared to having earplugs in. It might be difficult to hear soft speech and conversation when there is background noise, but you can hear speech in quiet environments.
  • Moderate: you cannot hear sounds that are quieter than 41-60 decibels. As most speech sounds are located between 20-60dB, conversational speech will be hard to understand, especially in noisy environments.
  • Severe: you cannot hear sounds that are quieter than 60-80 decibels. You will not be able to hear anything quieter than a vacuum cleaner or motorbike. People with severe hearing loss will need to use a hearing aid to understand and engage in spoken conversations.
  • Profound: you cannot hear sounds that are quieter than 91 decibels or over. That’s approximately the sound of a jet plane taking off or a rock band. Some people with profound hearing loss benefit from the help of hearing devices such as cochlear implants to access speech sounds or use Auslan (Australian Sign Language) to communicate.

There are different kinds of hearing loss that we describe according to which part of the ear is affected.

Graphic showing the different part of a ear

Conductive hearing loss occurs when something interferes with the sound travelling between the outer and inner ear. This could be caused by things like earwax, fluid that is a result of an ear infection, or a punctured eardrum. Conductive hearing loss is usually surgically or medically treatable. It may also be caused by a malformation of the outer ear, known as microtia, which affects how sound reaches the middle and inner ear.

Sensorineural hearing loss refers to damage in the inner ear (the cochlea) or the auditory nerve. As this is the part of the ear that translates sound into electrical information to the brain it can cause reduced sound levels or distortion. For people with sensorineural hearing loss, we usually recommend hearing aids or cochlear implants.

Mixed hearing loss is due to a combination of conductive and sensorineural hearing loss.

Retrocochlear hearing loss occurs when the auditory nerve has been affected. The sound you hear is processed properly in the inner ear, but it has a problem travelling to the brain.

Unilateral or bilateral. Unilateral hearing loss is when only one ear is affected, while bilateral hearing loss affects both ears.

Some people are born deaf or with hearing loss, for others it may develop quickly, or hearing loss might only become noticeable over time. There is no single cause of deafness or hearing loss, but some causes can include:

  • Genetic conditions
  • Contracting particular kinds of infections during pregnancy
  • Birth complications
  • Craniofacial (the parts of the head that enclose the brain and face) abnormalities
  • Meningitis
  • Head trauma or damage to the eardrum
  • Persistent ear infections
  • Hearing loss due to particular syndromes and degenerative disorders
  • Exposure to loud noises – this can affect hearing gradually, or immediately in the case of an extremely loud burst of sound.
  • Age-related hearing loss.

  • 1 in 6 Australians has hearing loss.
  • It is estimated that 1 in 1000 babies in Australia are born with significant hearing loss.
  • By school age that number is 2 in 1000 and by secondary school 3 in 1000 children require assistance because of hearing loss.
  • 1 in 3 Australians over 65 are diagnosed with a hearing loss.

Redefine what is possible

People who are deaf or hard of hearing might need extra help learning to communicate. RIDBC offers support for those using, or who intend to use Australian Sign Language (Auslan) or listening and spoken language through a hearing device.

Newborns with hearing loss get the best possible start when they and their families receive immediate support and assistance – known as early intervention. In fact, with the help of specialist, expert intervention from our teachers of the deaf, speech therapists, and allied health team, many children with hearing loss will reach language and communication parity with their peers.

Innovation in hearing loss

Technology is moving at a pace we’ve never seen before. That’s also true for the technology made with hearing loss in mind. RIDBC is one of the world leaders when it comes to innovation and research into hearing loss, and there are many other organisations with the same goal. Today, for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, technology is not only improving outcomes, it’s making more and more aspects of life accessible.

Sydney Cochlear Implant Program (SCIC), an RIDBC service, is a world-leader in research and outcomes for people with hearing loss. We strive to continually improve our evidence-based services and better our understanding of new and emerging hearing technologies. Our clinicians are involved in leading research projects, both independently and in collaboration with local and international organisations to ensure we remain at the forefront of innovation in our field.