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What is deafness?

The Oxford Dictionary defines 'deaf' and 'deafness' as wholly or partially without hearing (Hawkins, 1979) and for most people who have no connection with deaf people this is a full enough description. However, this definition does not indicate the problems that arise from deafness. Deafness is multifaceted (McCracken and Laoide-Kemp, 1998). The greatest difficulties faced by deaf individuals are related to the problems of language acquisition and the development of a communication system (Quigley and Paul, 1984). Helen Keller, probably the most famous deaf blind woman, perhaps best illustrates the impact of deafness.

I am just as deaf as I am blind. The problems of deafness are deeper and more complex, if not more important, than those of blindness. Deafness is a much worse misfortune. For it means the loss of the most vital stimulus - the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir and keeps us in the intellectual company of man (Keller, 1910) cited in (Martin, 2001).


What are the characteristics of Deafness?

The greatest difficulties faced by deaf individuals are related to problems of language acquisition and the development of a communication system.


Structure and function of the ear

It is important for our understanding of deafness that the reader has knowledge of the structure and function of the ear. The ear is divided into three parts

· The outer ear, the part you can see, with the canal leading to the eardrum.

· The middle ear, beyond the eardrum. This air-filled space contains the ossicles, tiny bones that stretch from the eardrum to the middle ear.

· The inner ear, containing the cochlea, which processes sound.

Click here for a diagram of the ear

Sound is collected by the pinna (the visible part of the ear) and directed through the outer ear canal. The sound makes the eardrum vibrate, which in turn causes a series of three tiny bones (the hammer, the anvil and the stirrup) in the middle ear to vibrate. The vibration is transferred to the snail-shaped cochlea in the inner ear. The cochlea is lined with sensitive hairs, which trigger the generation of nerve signals that are sent to the brain (Stewart and Adams, 1998). For more information click on the following link - How your ears work.

What are the types of Deafness?

There are two main types of deafness:

(a) Conductive deafness caused by an obstruction or abnormality in the outer or middle ear.

(b) Sensori-neural or nerve deafness caused by an abnormality of the inner ear or of the auditory nerve.


Definition of deafness

Deafness is the result of damage to any part of the ear and the degree of hearing loss depends on the severity of that damage. The implications of a hearing loss vary from person to person and are related to the individual's circumstances, thus making it difficult to define and classify deafness.

The Department of Education and Science, in Ireland, defines a deaf person as one whose hearing is affected to an extent that renders the understanding of speech through the ear alone, with or without a hearing aid, difficult or impossible (SERC, 1993).

The National Association for the Deaf state that deafness means that the person has some difficulty hearing sounds. Deaf people often cannot speak clearly. Many with a severe to profound loss may not be able to speak at all. Deafness can be seen as communication impairment rather than merely a loss of sound perception. Therefore it affects all personal, social, educational and business situations where information is given or received via speech or sound (Deaftec, 1997b).

The Irish Deaf Society defines deaf as a state of being: it defines a group of people who share a perception of the world through an emphasis on visual and kinaesthetic input. This description of deaf is used most commonly for people who are deaf at birth or in very early childhood. Deaf here defines a cultural, social and linguistic group, and is often signified by the use of a capital 'D' (IDS, 2000).

Visit the following websites for more information

Irish Deaf Society
The Irish Deaf Society exists to ensure that Deaf people using Irish Sign Language have the same rights and entitlement as any other citizens.

National Association for Deaf People-Ireland
NAD has campaigned for full equality in all aspects of life for deaf and hearing-impaired people, and for parents of deaf children to have all the supports and services for their children.

Royal Association in Aid of Deaf People (Charity)
This is a resource site with information and links to other organisations.

Royal National Institute for Deaf People
RNID provides a range of services for deaf and hard of hearing people and the professionals who work with them. They provide valuable information fact sheets.


Deaftec (1997) Information on Deafness, National Association for the Deaf, Dublin.
Hawkins, J. (1979) The Oxford Paperback Dictionary, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

IDS (2000) The Irish Deaf Society, The National Association OF the Deaf <http://www.irishdeafsociety.org/Deafinitions.htm> accessed on 4th March 2002.

Keller, H. (1910) Letter to Dr John Kerr Love, dated 31 March. Reprinted in Helen Keller in Scotland, a personal record written by herself (Kerr Love J, ed), Methuen (1933), London.

Martin, M. (2001) Deaf and hard of hearing people, In BALLANTYNE'S DEAFNESS (Eds, Graham, J. and Martin, M.) Whurr Publishers, London.

McCracken, W. and Laoide-Kemp, S. (Eds.) (1998) Audiology in Education, Whurr Publishers, London.

Quigley, S. and Paul, P. (1984) Language and Deafness, College-Hill Press, California.

SERC (1993) Report of the Special Education Review Committee, Government Publications, Department of Education and Science, Dublin.

Stewart, L. and Adams, D. (1998) Deafness: Its Implications, In Audiology in Education (Eds, Cracken, W. M. and Loaide-Kemp, S.) Whurr Publishers, London.

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