Hearing Impairments Overview

Hearing impairments can come on gradually or occur suddenly. They are caused by a variety of conditions and some people are born with them. Gradual hearing loss occurs most commonly in older people as a consequence of ageing. There are an estimated 12 million people in the UK living with hearing loss.

What are the types and signs of hearing impairment?

Types of hearing impairments include:

  • Sensorineural– a type of hearing loss which results from damage to the pathway which carries impulses from the inner ear to the brain. This can be caused by age-related damage to the cochlea, acoustic trauma (loud noises), meningitis or mumps, or Ménière’s disease, which also causes dizziness and tinnitus.
  • Conductive – type which affects the middle and outer ear and is usually caused by wax or fluid build-up (glue ear), infection, or a perforated eardrum. These are more easily treated.

Hearing loss can occur in one or both ears, to the same degree or varying degrees. People’s hearing loss can fluctuate or remain constant and it can apply to one or both of high-frequency and low-frequency sounds.

Signs of hearing impairments include:

  • Earache
  • Tinnitus
  • Vertigo or dizziness
  • Difficulty understanding what others are saying, particularly in noisy places
  • Needing the volume turned up higher on the TV than others
  • Tiredness or stress resulting from difficulty keeping up with a conversation.
  • Difficulty working out where a sound is coming from – this could be hearing loss in one ear

How are hearing impairments diagnosed and treated?

A GP can treat earwax build-up with ear drops, irrigation (using water to flush wax out) or micro-suction using a vacuum to suck out wax.

Perforated eardrums can be patched and infections treated with antibiotics.

Longer-term hearing loss can be treated in a variety of ways. A GP can refer someone to a specialist to assess them, before deciding on the best treatment.

Hearing aids make sounds louder and clearer and can fit behind the ear, in the ear opening, or in the ear canal. If these do not help, some people may require hearing implants affixed to the side of their head, or inside the skull.

Cochlear implants can also help people with more severe permanent hearing loss. These work by using a microphone to pick up sounds and translate them into electrical impulses. A device inside the ear then detects these impulses. 

These devices will vary in how much – if at all – they can help someone with hearing loss as people with hearing loss vary in which part of their ear (or brain) is causing their hearing loss.

Assistive listening devices, such as hearing loops to allow someone to take phone calls through their hearing aid, as well as use of sign language and lip-reading can help improve the quality of life of someone with hearing loss.

Sign language and lip-reading are more common in people who have had severe hearing loss from a young age and struggle to learn to communicate through and learn, spoken language.

There are a few ways to determine whether an employee has hearing impairments, or to confirm a hearing impairment which requires reasonable adjustments:

  • The employee will likely raise the issue of their impairment upfront, particularly in the case of more severe impairments if they are registered deaf or hard or hearing.
  • Even if the employee does not wish to disclose their hearing impairments, an employer can focus on making reasonable adjustments, rather than seeking to determine the precise disability their employee has.
  • Given that hearing impairments can evolve over time, with certain symptoms worsening as the person ages, it is important to maintain regular communication with the employee who has hearing impairments so that the reasonable adjustments remain appropriate.

What reasonable adjustments are possible with hearing impairments?

Employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees with hearing impairments if they know, are aware of, or could ‘reasonably be expected to know’ that the employee has one of these impairments. Most employees will tell their employer what reasonable adjustments they need. They often involve simple changes in the way an employer might usually do things.

If the employee does not disclose a health issue or disability which may affect their performance upfront, an employer should broach the subject sensitively if they suspect that there may be a disability behind the employee’s reduced performance. Reasonable adjustments can then be made in accordance with the employee’s needs, including, in the case of hearing impairments:

  • Accommodating time off: for appointments relating to their impairment, such as to follow up on the recent fitting of a hearing aid or implant.
  • Providing an adapted computer: with speech-to-text reporters so that the employee does not have to rely on being able to listen to audio, etc.
  • Providing a hearing loop to use when work takes the employee away from the office, such as a training course.
  • Adjusting office set-up and layout: to make it as easy as possible for the employee to lip-read colleagues, as well as to avoid the impact that background noise has on the employee’s ability to listen and communicate.
  • Emphasising the employee’s skills, rather than the difficulties they have as a result of their hearing impairments: people with hearing impairments have the same cognitive function as people without it, and so their intellectual abilities will be unaffected by their disability. It is important not to make assumptions about what the employee with the impairment can and cannot do.
  • Raise awareness: for the employees with hearing impairments to be better understood in the workplace, and to make employees feel comfortable if asking for help related to their impairments.

Hearing impairments Signposting

Action on Hearing Loss – charity providing information and support for people with hearing loss, as well as funding for research and campaigning to move closer to equality for people with hearing impairments (0808 808 0123).

Hearing Link – charity helping people with hearing loss confront and overcome practical challenges, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic. They offer drop-in advice services, blogs and online forums, as well as a helpline accessible via an online enquiry form.

British Deaf Association – membership organisation for deaf people offering services which help to empower deaf people in the UK and encourage them to live life to the fullest. This includes campaigning for public services to become more sign language-inclusive and aware (07795 410724).

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