Understanding sensory loss

At HiVisUK, in our training, we talk about the MAC mantra – how deafblindness significantly affects a person’s mobility, access to information and communication (MAC).

Deafblindness has been described as: “a unique and isolating sensory disability…which significantly affects communication, socialisation, mobility and daily living” (Australian Deafblind Council, 2004).

The Pocklington Trust (2009) found: “these (MAC) challenges interact and self-perpetuate…which leads to further loneliness and seclusion”.This is a problem affecting the health and wellbeing of the most vulnerable members of society.

The two definitions above are incredibly powerful as they focus on the key impact – isolation. But to begin to understand dual sensory loss or deafblindness it is helpful to know something about hearing loss and sight loss separately (single sensory loss), then we can look at the signs of deafblindess – when both senses deteriorate significantly.

Hearing Impairment

First of all let us consider a child born deaf or becoming deafened at an early age. They will nowadays either be offered a cochlear implant, taught sign language or fitted with hearing aids at a time in their development when they will be able to adapt to get the best possible use from them.

For older people, age related deafblindness is becoming increasingly common as we all live longer and is a particularly cruel condition that can rob older people of their independence, affect their ability to communicate, cause isolation and have a negative effect on their mental health and wellbeing.

Hearing aids distort and amplify all sounds not just conversation – yet older people are routinely fitted with hearing aids without training or, more importantly, the time needed to adapt to their use.

It is important to be aware that compared to English, British Sign Language is a ‘foreign’ language in its own right and like most new languages can take years to learn – even if you can find someone else, skilled enough, to communicate with. Eyesight is an important factor in visual communication and facial expressions; body language and lip reading all also play an important role.

Understanding Sensory Loss

Visual Impairment

If a child is born with a serious visual impairment or becomes blind early in life, it is likely they will be taught to use Braille and then rely on their hearing and voice to communicate with the outside world. Unfortunately some children are born with or develop a dual sensory impairment – they become deafblind.

In  these cases they can learn to communicate using a fingerspelling alphabet called ‘deafblind manual’ which involves spelling the conversation on the child’s hand and the child responding by spelling words on the other person’s hand.

You can probably imagine that in each of these scenarios, the deaf, blind or deafblind person will receive lots of specialist support and resources made available to them and with the luxury of time to enable them to adapt to using them.

Whereas the vast majority of us use our vision and hearing to communicate and do not need to learn any additional specialist skills or worry about noisy pubs or restaurants… until that is, we grow old.

Now let’s look at when the two sensory losses come together forming a new and unique condition, deafblindness.

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As we get older we will all experience problems with our sight and hearing, simply because we are living longer. Chances are someone close to you – family, friend or neighbour, is finding life difficult now both their sight and hearing are affected.

If you know someone (or if that someone is you) who may need help, contact HiVisUK, details on the Contact page, for free impartial advice.

Just click “take the test” below.

Did you know, anyone struggling with both their sight and hearing can ask to see a specially trained person from their local authority to look at their needs and talk about what might help?

So how can we tell if an elderly person is becoming deafblind?

What are the signs to look out for? The following paragraphs form a useful checklist:

Well, perhaps the older person will say something like – ‘my eyes aren’t as good as they used to be’ – or – ‘I don’t seem to hear as well anymore’. You might notice other potential signs:

Is their TV volume really loud? Are there piles of unopened mail? Are the newspapers unread or have they been cancelled perhaps to ‘save money’?

Have they stopped going out as much? Does the telephone go unanswered? Are the lights left on all of the time? Does the doorbell go unanswered?

Are they unsure who is speaking if there are more than two people in the room? Do they have a burned or sore finger or thumb?”

Any of the above, or other signs, might be the clue you need to seek help. Contact IGH if you think you know an older person who may be deafblind or may be becoming deafblind.

Some Deafblindess Facts and Ageing

The Department of Health (2009) estimates one in three people aged 75+ have deafblindness affecting their mobility, access to information, and communication.

By 2030 one in four of the population of England will be aged 65+ (Office for National Statistics). As we all live longer many of us will lose the ability to see and hear well enough to continue to live our lives the way we used to.

The Centre for Disability Research (2010) predicted by 2030 the number of people aged 60+ with dual sensory impairment will increase by 60%.

Also according to The Department for Health (2009) from the age of 75 onwards a person who has become deafblind is:

  • 3.6 times more likely to have a stroke;
  • 2.2 times more likely to have arthritis;
  • 2.5 times more likely to have heart disease;
  • 1.5 times more likely to have hypertension;
  • 3 times more likely to fall;
  • 2.7 times more likely to have depression.