Mediaplanet: What defines personal hearing health and why is it important for Canadians to educate themselves on the topic?

Lorin MacDonald: A person with an invisible disability is a person who has a disability that is not immediately apparent, showing no outward signs of their disability. For instance, some people with hearing loss may not appear to have a disability given the absence of visible aids such as a service dog or a wheelchair, but may still require a level of accommodation to navigate normal activities of daily living.

In many ways, our health overall and the quality of our social connections are linked; hearing loss can have an impact on the ease and quality of those connections. For many people who live with hearing loss, this changes the way communication with family, friends, and everyone we interact with is done. If a person has not found ways to adapt communication to be effective and foster healthy relationships, it is easy to feel isolated by that hearing loss. Everyday misunderstandings can start to add up — feelings of embarrassment, frustration, or sadness can make someone with a hearing loss want to step back from socializing and activities once enjoyed, especially in cases of hearing loss acquired later in life. It is so important to maintain our social connections as part of our quality of life and emotional health.  This is not possible if the realities of how an invisible disability like hearing loss creates barriers in communication fails to be recognized, unlike barriers that are more easily removed such as glasses to help us see or ramps to foster physical access. When society is cognizant of the hearing and communication needs of people with hearing loss, the benefits of that effort creates a win-win situation.

As Canada and its governing agencies turn their attention to accessibility and inclusion for all its citizens, it is important that invisible disabilities are included in any future measures and accommodations. Many Canadians with disabilities face challenges in times of transition, particularly: (1) youth as they transition from high school to university and university to the workplace; (2) veterans as they transition from service to civilian life; and  (3) seniors as they transition out of the workforce and into retirement and healthy aging. 

MP: What everyday activities impact people’s hearing? What can the average person do to take extra precautions in order to protect and maintain their hearing?

LM: Most people know that loud sounds can damage our hearing, but many do not realize that even seemingly “normal” levels of noise can have a cumulative effect on our hearing. Noise-induced hearing loss begins to occur at 85 decibels (dB) if you are exposed to this for eight hours or more: ie, a vacuum cleaner or mini-bike can generate that level of noise. For a short period of time, that would not seem like a very loud sound, but if you are exposed to that volume consistently over a longer period, it can have a permanent impact on our hearing. If we look at higher volumes, such as 90 dB or more — like when you are mowing your lawn or attending a rock concert — you would only need to be exposed to that for two hours for that level of noise to have an adverse effect on your hearing health.

If we know we are going to do something where we will be exposed to high intensity sounds, we must plan on wearing hearing protection. There are different types of ear plugs and noise-cancelling headphones that are graded based on the level of protection they provide.

Untreated hearing loss can result in impaired memory, depression, danger to personal safety, less alertness to environment, less adaptability to learning new tasks, reduced overall psychological health, increased anxiety, and fatigue. If you suspect you or someone you know has a hearing loss, the first step is getting a diagnosis. Visit your doctor or see a hearing clinic to start this process.