Hearing Loss and the American Consciousness

I just had a discussion with a patient regarding a view of Deaf and Dumb that actually is still used in American Sign Language (ASL) to signify one who has a profound hearing loss.  I would like to give you a little informal history:

Deaf and Dumb actually comes from 1150-1200 AD in Middle English (I had a professor in college in my undergrad who could speak Middle English.  It was beautiful to hear but you would not understand most of the language) and refers to the “deaf” person as “mute”.  Due to most lack of educational systems up through the 18th century, these people who were Profoundly Hearing Impaired were not taught to speak.  In that era, Sign Language began to become popular and seen starting with Pedro Ponce de Leon in the early 1700’s and continued with the first schools for the Deaf in the 1750’s.

Unfortunately, the Deaf population were misunderstood and even placed in the archaic termed “Insane Asylums” now known as Psychiatric Facilities along with those who had Down’s Syndrome and other mental diseases.  Through the 20th century, while the terminology has gradually dropped the silly concept of “dumb”, we have current authors such as Stephen King in his book The Stand who portrays one of his main characters called to Boulder, Colorado after a world wide disease that kills all but 1% of the population as an intelligent man named Nick Andros, who happens to be deaf, but is poorly shown as mute as well.  Most Profoundly Deaf people can learn to speak and do but there is a strong culture within the Deaf Community in which Sign Language is present.  It is one of the most amazing and isolating feelings for a person, like myself in college with perfect hearing at the time, to enter a Deaf Party where hands fly with meaning but very little sounds are uttered.  It is the reverse of what the Deaf Population feel within crowded bars with much vocal communication occurring.

So what does all of this have to do with those with hearing loss and the American Consciousness you ask?  This viewpoint of hearing loss tying to inability to speak effectively still affects those with hearing loss.  If a person has hearing loss and is without hearing amplification and does not respond to the speaker well, our culture unwittingly senses that the person is not able to respond mentally.  Many in care facilities across the nation would have been treated differently by staff members if they were hearing effectively with the use of correct hearing aids by an Audiologist.  Actually a study around 10 years ago indicated that as many as 50% of those in nursing homes would not be there if corrective lenses and hearing aids were prescribed effectively.

When a person does not respond effectively, most Americans cannot tell the difference between dementia (inability to process information as effectively anymore) or hearing loss.  Only a precious few Psychologists or Psychiatrists ever even check for hearing loss before making mental or cognitive diagnoses regarding their patient’s ability to respond to information presented.  These types of circumstances lead the culture to mistakenly believe that Dumb/Muteness exists within those with Hearing Loss, and of course it does not.