Photo credit: cottonbro studio
by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition
At the end of last month on Sept. 23, International Day of Sign Languages was celebrated around the world. I wasn’t aware of this special day until I received an email about it from the World Health Organization’s Ear and Hearing Care Program. I learned that the International Day of Sign Languages was first celebrated in 1958 as a part of the International Week of the Deaf. I also learned that there are more than 70 million deaf people worldwide — over 80% are in developing countries and they use more than 300 different sign languages. Sign languages are full-fledged natural languages that are structurally distinct from spoken languages. An international sign language is used by deaf people in meetings and informally when traveling or socializing.
I already knew that the word “deaf” has a different meaning in the hearing health world from that in everyday use, and I want to be sure our readers understand this, too. “Deaf” is used to describe people with congenital hearing loss, or those with profound hearing loss (over 70-90 decibels). It is not used in the way we often hear in everyday speech; for example, “my grandfather is going deaf. He can’t hear me when I talk to him.”
There are five senses — vision, hearing, touch, smell and taste — and of these, vision is the most valued. When people are asked about the worst thing that could happen to them other than death, most say that going blind is the worst thing that could happen. The importance of smell and taste, though, was highlighted during the COVID pandemic. Approximately 60% of people infected with COVID in 2021 lost some ability to taste or smell, and a quarter of these patients didn’t fully recover.
Most of us don’t appreciate hearing, either. Hearing is the social sense, allowing us to connect with other people. If we develop hearing loss, we can still maintain independence at home and in the world, but we become isolated. Hearing loss is associated, probably causally, with isolation, depression, dementia, falls, increased hospital use and increased mortality.
Most of us are born with excellent hearing, which if properly protected will last us our entire lifetimes. If something sounds loud, it’s too loud and our auditory health is at risk. Turn down the volume, leave the noisy environment or use hearing protection devices.