What is a Hearing Impairment?

Classroom Students
Classroom Students. Robert Benson / Stringer / Getty Images

What Is Hearing Impairment?

The usual definition of a hearing impairment is any lessening of a person's ability to hear. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), hearing impairment has a special meaning. It is a permanent hearing loss or a decrease in hearing that is so significant it negatively affects a child's performance in school or ability to learn.

Hearing impairments can be caused by:

  • heredity - Genetic links have been found in the Human Genome Mapping Project;
  • severe illness in childhood such as rubella (German measles) or spinal meningitis;
  • prenatal maternal illnesses;
  • Exposure to long-term loud noise or exposure to sudden extreme noise;
  • preventable prenatal substance abuse;
  • physical injury or damage to the brain, the head, or the ear;
  • age-related hearing loss.

A complete inability to hear is categorized as deafness. The National Association of the Deaf generally uses hard of hearing rather than hearing impairment. Hard of hearing is defined having some hearing, the ability to use it for communication purposes, and ability to comfortably communicate with this level of hearing. A hard of hearing person may have a mild to moderate hearing loss. ​Deafness is not included under the hearing impairment category under the IDEA.

How Can Schools Accommodate Hearing Impairment?

Under the IDEA, students with hearing loss must be accommodated by their school so that they can be included in the "least restrictive environment" possible.

As children with hearing impairment are no more likely than other children to have cognitive challenges, the least restrictive environment usually means the general education classroom.

To accommodate a child who can hear, but has significant impairments, schools may:

  • implement a wireless FM system
  • provide your child with an induction loop which sends auditory information directly to their hearing aid
  • use a loudspeaker in the classroom, either for the whole class or for your child
  • provide written versions and/or notes for all lecture style presentations
  • provide a 1:1 sign language translator for your child

Because children who are hard of hearing may also have speech and social challenges, your child's school should also implement one or more social remediation programs for your child. These may include:

  • stand speech therapy
  • speech therapy in the context of a social group
  • social skills therapy and/or coaching
  • peer buddy groups

It's important to note that many schools will provide technical supports, but may fail to integrate therapies and social programs into your child's program. If this is the case, and you feel your child could benefit from opportunities to build speech and social skills, consider advocating for those services. It may also be important to work with your child and his teachers to pinpoint and build on his areas of strength. A difficulty with hearing need not have an impact on abilities in areas such as sports, art, or academics.

Learn about the various degrees of hearing impairment and what they involve.