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8-minute read

Key facts

  • Deafness is the complete loss of your hearing.
  • Some people are born deaf while other people may become deaf.
  • Deafness can be diagnosed by having a hearing test.
  • People who are deaf may choose to use hearing technology such as a cochlear implant.

What is deafness?

Deafness is the complete loss of your hearing. If you have partial hearing loss you are known as being ‘hard of hearing’.

What are the signs of deafness?

If you are deaf, you may:

  • misunderstand conversation
  • not respond when spoken to
  • not react to loud noises
  • have unclear speech

If you are deaf, you may also hear noises in your ears, like:

  • ringing
  • hissing
  • buzzing

This is known as tinnitus.

You can read more about signs of hearing loss in children here.

What causes deafness?

Deafness can be caused by:

  • abnormal growth of the tiny bones in the middle ear
  • damage or malfunction of the cochlear in your inner ear
  • problems with the nerve between the cochlear and the brain
  • exposure to loud noise
  • some medicines and medical conditions

You may be born deaf, or you may lose your hearing over time. Losing your hearing over time is more common in people who:

  • work in noisy environments
  • have been exposed to loud machinery and tools

Losing your hearing is more common as you get older. This is also known as being hard of hearing or hearing loss.

When should I see a doctor?

Talk to your doctor if you have problems with your hearing. They can refer you or your child to a specialist or paediatrician (children’s doctor).

How is deafness diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and:

  • examine your ears
  • check of your overall health and medical history

They can also arrange for you to have a hearing test.

Living with deafness

If you are deaf, you may experience some barriers in society. You may choose to use hearing technology.

You may also prefer to live without using hearing technology. Many people who are deaf experience deafness as a normal part of their life.

Treatment options

Depending on the cause of your hearing loss, there may be options to improve your hearing, such as:

Hearing aids can be an effective way of improving hearing for some people. They can sit behind your ear, or in your ear. A microphone detects sounds, and a speaker projects them louder into your ear.

Another option is a bone conduction hearing aid. This device bypasses your outer and middle ear and uses vibrations in your skull to help you hear.

Your doctor might recommend a cochlear implant. These are small devices that are surgically inserted into your cochlea. These devices use electrical impulses to send sounds to the inner ear (the cochlear). These sounds are then sent to your brain along your auditory nerve.

The Deaf community

While some people see deafness as a problem, others see it as just another way of being. In Australia, there is a strong Deaf community with its own culture. Many deaf people:

  • find it offensive that deafness is seen as an abnormality
  • don’t seek ‘cures’ or treatment for deafness

The organisation Aussie Deaf Kids puts it this way: ‘In a room full of deaf people, it is the hearing person who cannot sign who is disabled‘.

If you or your child is deaf, being part of the Deaf community can provide a lot of strength and support.

Communicating when you are deaf or have hearing loss

If you are deaf, you may prefer to communicate in different ways, such as:

  • writing
  • lip reading
  • sign language

Lip reading

Many deaf people use lip reading to communicate. Lip reading can be difficult and requires lots of concentration. Good lighting is important with lip reading.

Sign language

For many deaf people, Auslan is their first language and English their second language.

Auslan is short for Australian sign language. It’s a language that has been developed by Australians who are deaf or hearing impaired.

Sign language uses a combination of:

  • hand signs
  • facial expressions
  • body language

Learning sign language can help if you are deaf or know someone who is deaf. If you are deaf, a sign language interpreter can also help you understand things that are said.

Communicating with other people

If you or your child have hearing problems, you can let people know such as your:

  • friends
  • family members
  • work colleagues or friends at school

This way, they can communicate better with you or your child.

Communicating with someone with hearing loss

If you know someone with hearing problems, you should ask them how they prefer to communicate.

If someone you know is deaf, you can communicate best by:

  • facing them when speaking to make sure that they can see your face
  • speaking to them in areas with good lighting
  • not shouting or exaggerate words
  • avoiding conversations in noisy environments
  • use facial expressions to help communicate

Complications of deafness

In children, deafness can be associated with learning and behavioural problems. It’s important to contact your doctor as soon as possible if you suspect your child has a hearing problem.

Unfortunately, in adults, deafness can cause problems at home and at work. It can lead to:

  • social withdrawal
  • isolation
  • depression

Deaf people may experience discrimination in education, employment and other parts of life.

Resources and support

You can call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Communication services

The Australian Government Hearing Services Program provides subsidised hearing services for eligible people.

You can also access a guide to hearing technology through the Department of Health website.

The National Relay Service allows people with hearing loss or deafness to make free phone calls 24 hours a day. These include calls using the internet, SMS and video.

Auslan Signbank has information about Auslan sign language and classes.

You can also visit the Hearing Australia website, which offers:

  • information on hearing technologies
  • an online hearing assessment, and an audio test

Support for people who are deaf

If you or your child are deaf, there are organisations that can provide support for living with hearing include:

  • Deaf Australia — a not-for-profit organisation that represents people who are deaf, hard of hearing or fluent and knowledgeable about Auslan
  • Aussie Deaf Kids — a registered charity that provides independent information and support for families with a child who is deaf or hard of hearing

Pregnancy, Birth and Baby has information on raising a deaf child.

Support for people with hearing loss

If you have hearing loss, you can find more information through:

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: February 2024

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