Breaking the silence on deafness

Public urged to learn more about deafness and deaf culture

Monday, September 12 2016

Did you know that 17 babies are born with hearing loss in our country every day and that about 90% of deaf babies are born to hearing parents? There are approximately two million deaf people in South Africa, which effectively means that as many as 4,5% of people in our country are deaf.

September is International Month for the Deaf and deaf people throughout the world are standing together to break the silence surrounding deafness while creating greater awareness and understanding for those living with deafness. “People are scared of what they do not understand and education it is vital in breaking the many stereotypes surrounding deafness,” comments Jabulane Blose, chief executive officer of the South African National Deaf Association (SANDA). Blose is urging the public to take the time not only to learn more about deafness but also about deaf culture.

“The term ‘deafness’ is a medical term referring to having little or no residual hearing,” explains Sam Medhurst, audiologist at Netcare Mulbarton Hospital. “A person who is deaf will mostly rely on visual forms of communication such as sign language, lip reading and body language in order to communicate effectively,” she adds, explaining that there is a difference between being deaf and being hearing impaired. “Being deaf means having little or no residual hearing and having to rely more on visual forms of communication, whereas being hearing impaired refers to having a degree of hearing loss but still retaining residual hearing.”

The cause of deafness is widespread, but can generally be divided into two main types. The World Health Organization (WHO) provides further information on the causes of deafness:

Congenital deafness

Congenital causes of deafness usually cause hearing loss before or shortly after birth and may include the following:

  • Hereditary and non-hereditary genetic factors
  • Infections like rubella of syphilis during pregnancy
  • The use of cytotoxic medicines (used in the treatment of cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis) as well as antimalarial drugs and diuretics during pregnancy
  • Low birth weight and birth asphyxia (a lack of oxygen at the time of birth)
  • Severe jaundice in the neonatal period.

Acquired deafness

Acquired causes of deafness can result in hearing loss at any age and may include the following:

  • Infectious diseases like mumps, measles and meningitis
  • Chronic ear infection or collection of fluid in the ear
  • Injuries to the head or ear
  • Foreign objects or compacted wax blocking the ear canal
  • Excessive exposure to noise including occupational noise (e.g. machinery or explosions) or recreational noise (e.g. concerts, personal audio devices or sporting events).

There are varying degrees of hearing loss, ranging from mild to severe. “An audiologist will conduct audiological assessments or hearing tests in order to determine the type and degree of the hearing impairment,” explains Medhurst. “Appropriate recommendations for hearing amplification devices will be made in order to improve a patient’s  hearing and quality of life.”

Amplification devices include hearing aids and cochlear implants. “A cochlear implant is an electronic device that is surgically implanted under the skin behind the ear. The device bypasses the damaged cochlea and sends sounds electronically to the brain,” notes Medhurst.

She also mentions that people have a misconception that a cochlear implant can cure deafness. “A cochlear implant does not restore or create normal hearing. Instead, it assists with speech understanding and provides useful auditory understanding of the environment.”

There are strict requirements for a cochlear implant and not all deaf patients are eligible for, nor will they benefit from, a cochlear implant as sometimes amplification devices have little or no effect.

“It is imperative to understand that the deaf community do not see themselves as disabled. With the assistance of sign language, many deaf people live normal, happy and healthy lives,” notes Blose.

Sign language is the main form of communication used by deaf people around the world. Sign language is however not universal and every country has its own version of it. Similarly, South African Sign Language or SASL is widely used within the South African deaf community. Recently, DeafSA submitted a petition with over 20 000 signatures to parliament in order to make SASL the 12th official language of South Africa. “Having SASL as an official language will provide the deaf community in South Africa with proper education and provide them with a brighter future,” says Blose.

Deaf based education is still a major issue in South Africa and globally. Only 20% of deaf South Africans have Grade 12. Many work as labourers and around 70% are unemployed. This is mainly due to the lack of suitable education for people who are hearing impaired.

There are approximately 40 schools for the deaf in the country, which is not nearly enough when considering the size of the deaf community in our country.

Netcare Mulbarton Hospital will host several events during September in celebration of International Month for the Deaf. These will include informative talks on deafness as well as demonstrations of SASL. “We would like to urge the public to join us in raising awareness of deafness by educating themselves and to embrace the deaf community of South Africa,” concludes Medhurst.



Issued by:    Martina Nicholson Associates (MNA) on behalf of Netcare Mulbarton Hospital
Contact    :    Martina Nicholson, Graeme Swinney, Meggan Saville or Pieter Rossouw
Telephone:    (011) 469 3016
Email:    [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] or [email protected]