- Deafness is a condition defined by a lack of hearing, starting at 25 dB. Deafness exists on a spectrum based on amount of hearing loss, also known as deaf gain, in either or both ears. Deafness can be brought on by a series of factors, including but not limited to, trauma to the ear or head, exposure to loud noise, chronic ear infections, and birth defects. Deafness can occur in two of the three sections of the ear (middle and inner). Middle ear causes include ear infections, problems with the ear drum, or ear wax build up, and can usually be fixed by simple surgeries, antibiotics, or a cleaning. Inner ear deafness is usually caused by something more serious like a birth defect or a genetic disorder. This is usually fixed by complex, invasive surgeries, or in some cases, the insertion of a cochlear implant.
For more than a millennium of our current era, Deafness was paired with the word “dumb,” as modern thought up until the 16th century believed that the inability to hear and speak meant that one was unable to form coherent thought. This lead to the isolation and invalidation of Deaf individuals. Development of teaching for the deaf alongside early hearing aids only caught traction in the 17th century, as the first anatomical mapping of a human ear was produced, leading to the gradual development of schools for the deaf, becoming popularized throughout Europe in the 18th century. Deaf schools in the United States were modeled after the European methods, and the first traces of ASL began in a school in Connecticut—a sign language which developed from French, local, and informal home signs. Soon, most deaf schools in the U.S. began offering instruction in sign language.
This embrace of sign language lasted until the late 19th century, where the debate between oral and manual communication got a huge shock from Darwinism. Misinformed as it was, popular interpretation of Darwinism branded sign language “primitive,” and deaf learning shifted back to oral teaching methods (despite the fact that Deaf individuals continued to primarily use sign for everyday communication). Oralism had a strong supporter in Alexander Graham Bell, who ended up being a large proponent in the development of hearing technology. Hearing impairment and Deafness would only gain its greatest traction, though, when occupational hearing loss became recognized in the late 19th century, leading to the “medicalization” of deafness. This meant issues of hearing gaining more attention for medical/scientific study and a more mainstream understanding. Deaf culture was fostered during this time, and continues to grow stronger today, even as cochlear implants and other hearing technologies blur the line between “hearing” and “deafness.”
The two main modern treatments for deafness are hearing aids and cochlear implants. Hearing aids are customized microphone and amp sets that the patient can wear to amplify their hearing abilities. Cochlear implants are vibrating implants that are designed to stimulate the hearing nerve directly, bypassing normal hearing mechanisms altogether.