Deafness, hearing loss, and being hard of hearing are some of the most common disabilities in the U.S. and worldwide, yet there are still many misconceptions surrounding hearing disabilities — including that there are many different levels of hearing. Here are 8 facts about hearing impairment and how they relate to web accessibility.
Facts about hearing and web accessibility
1. Hearing disabilities vary in intensity
The experience of having a hearing disability, from minor hearing loss to total deafness, is individual to each person.
According to the American Tinnitus Association, 50 million Americans experience some form of tinnitus, a ringing or buzzing noise in the ears. Additionally, roughly 1 million people in the U.S. are functionally deaf.
Because hearing disabilities vary in intensity from person to person, you should use several different strategies for making your website accessible, including closed captions and transcripts for video and audio content.
2. Hearing disabilities vary in type
In addition to intensity, hearing disabilities come in several different types, including:
- Tinnitus, a ringing or buzzing sound that may be caused by aging or sustained exposure to loud noises.
- Conductive hearing loss, which involves damage to the outer or middle ear that prevents sound from passing to the inner ear.
- Sensorineural hearing loss, when there is damage to the inner ear, the cochlea, or the auditory nerve.
- Auditory processing disorders, preventing the brain from correctly turning noise into information.
Some web accessibility solutions may exist for certain types of hearing loss, but not others. For example, allowing users to increase the volume of audio and video content may help people with conductive hearing loss, but not with sensorineural hearing loss.
3. Not all people with hearing impairments use hearing aids
Hearing aids are small electronic devices that help amplify sounds for people with partial hearing loss.
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders calculates that 29 million people in the U.S. could benefit from using a hearing aid. However, it takes an average of 7 years for people with hearing loss to seek medical treatment. Additionally, not everyone with a hearing impairment wishes to hear or to hear more fully, as changes to one's body and senses are very personal.
Making your website accessible doesn’t just help people with severe hearing impairments, but also people with minor hearing loss who may not necessarily realize their hearing has lessened.
4. Not all people with hearing impairments use sign language
A common misconception is that people who are deaf or hard of hearing all know sign language. The reality is that the opportunity and personal preferences for learning sign language vary tremendously, and it is a faulty assumption to believe everyone knows or uses it.
While support for sign language might be a natural first thought when making your website accessible, many people with hearing impairments don’t know sign language, especially those who incurred hearing loss later in life.
Closed captions and transcripts are most likely preferable for website content aimed at the general public. For example, closed captions and transcripts can be easily translated between spoken languages with tools such as Google Translate, while no such application exists for translating between sign languages. That said, it's important to keep in mind that American Sign Language (ASL) is not simply a one-to-one translation from spoken or written English, so written text isn't necessarily always an alternative for visually expressed signing and information.
5. Most people with hearing impairments are older
People of any age may be affected by hearing impairments. For example, 0.2 percent of children are born with a detectable level of hearing loss.
However, the majority of people with hearing impairments are senior citizens. One in 3 people between 65 and 74 have a hearing impairment, as well as nearly half of those over 75.
If your website serves a mainly older demographic, making it accessible to people with hearing impairments should be a preeminent concern. It’s also important to think about how hearing disabilities may intersect with other disabilities, such as impairments to vision, motor skills, and cognitive faculties.
6. Hearing impairments affect children as well
Despite hearing impairments being most common among the older demographic, many children also have partial or total hearing loss. For example, 15 percent of children between 6 and 19 years old have measurable hearing loss in at least one ear.
These challenges can have serious consequences for students with hearing loss. It’s estimated that children with a 30-decibel hearing loss will miss 25 to 40 percent of classroom discussion. Various studies have found that 18 to 35 percent of schoolchildren with hearing loss in one ear will fail at least 1 grade.
For more information about web accessibility for educational institutions, read Back to School: Why Web Accessibility is Important for Education.
7. Hearing impairments can be linked to other health issues
For example, scientists speculate that diabetes can lead to hearing complications by damaging blood vessels and nerves in the ear. Meanwhile, hearing loss can contribute to problems with communication and feelings of social isolation, which can sometimes lead to depression.
Due to these issues, it’s even more important for people with hearing impairments to receive access to quality healthcare, including via the Internet. Our article How Web Accessibility Impacts Healthcare provides more information about web accessibility for healthcare organizations.
8. U.S. law protects people with hearing impairments
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities by federal and local governments, by employers, as well as in places of public accommodation that serve the general public.
Some of the ways that the ADA protects the rights of people with hearing disabilities include:
- Closed captioning display devices in movie theaters and lecture halls.
- Sign language interpreters in a hospital, school, or courtroom setting.
- “Reasonable accommodations” at work, such as access to assistive technologies needed to do one’s job.
Although it is not explicitly laid out in the text of the ADA, the legislation has been widely interpreted to extend to the question of web accessibility. Other U.S. laws also protect the rights of people with hearing impairments online. For example, in 2012 the U.S. FCC ruled that all TV programs with closed captions must include those captions when published online.
Here to help with all your accessibility needs
Knowing the facts about hearing impairments makes it easier to understand how you can make your website accessible to everyone.
If you are looking for ways to make web browsing easier for you or someone you know, please read 3 Tips for Easier Web Browsing with Hearing Disabilities. To learn more about how we help our clients in this area, read How Do We Perform Accessibility Testing for the Impact of Auditory Disabilities?