Today, March 3, is World Hearing Day. And today the World Health Organization released its first ever Report on World Hearing.
Awareness of hearing loss as a global problem has been slow in coming. That this is the first report on hearing loss from the prestigious WHO is evidence of that. One explanation for the delay is the invisibility of hearing loss – the vast number of people who hide it. And one explanation for the invisibility is the stigma of hearing loss.
And a powerful stigma it is. WHO predicts that if current trends go unchecked by 2050 (a date that used to seem so long ago and now seems perilously on the horizon) one in four people worldwide will have hearing loss.
That’s an alarming number, but perhaps even more alarming is that 430 million people right now have disabling hearing loss. “Disabling” — as I wrote in my previous post, quoting the language of the Americans with Disabilities Act — means that an impairment “substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Not all hearing loss is disabling. Disabling hearing loss does not include the signing Deaf, who have a perfectly good language, and are not disabled as long as society doesn’t throw obstacles in their way. “Accessibility alleviates disability,” as I wrote in a presentation recently. (I’m not sure I coined that phrase, but it’s a good one so I use it.)
But the vast majority of those with hearing loss are not sign-language users, and in many of them, including me, the loss is a disability.
The report notes that 60 percent of hearing loss can be prevented. In children, prevention includes immunization, especially against rubella and meningitis, and better maternal and neonatal care. In adulthood, it means limiting exposure to noise and ototoxins. There are other causes of course, including heredity, which can be exacerbated by these.
Universal vaccination and screening, better maternal and prenatal health care – these things are expensive, right? In the short run, yes. But in the long run it is money well invested. The report calculates that governments can expect a return of nearly $16 (US) for every $1 invested.
WHO invited me to speak at their launch ceremony this morning. It was a wonderful event (except that it was held at 5 am EST). Sandile Majola and the Ndlovu Youth Choir of South Africa kicked it off – and woke me up — with a rousing performance sung and signed in a sunny outdoor setting. I was asked to talk about my own loss and what role stigma played in how I dealt with the loss.
As I wrote my talk, I realized that stigma has affected me in ways I’d not realized before. I’ll post a version of that talk separately. World Hearing Day celebrates hearing, but it also is an opportunity to remind ourselves that hearing is easy to lose and hard to get back. As individuals and as countries, we need to protect this precious resource.