Hearing loss is an invisible handicap

I was trained at a time when medical care was not a commodity.  It was part art, part science, and not delivered in bits in pieces but imparted with an eye to the whole patient.

And I was trained by a master of the art and the science and the whole patient.  Dr. Robert Ruben has spent his life studying the effects of communication disorders on the lives of children who have challenges to communicate because they could not hear or they could not speak.

He recently published an editorial about language in the International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology, for which he has served as Editor-in-Chief for more than a quarter of a century. What he said to the small audience of physicians who care for children with these disorders has great relevance to everyone, so I am going to do my best to digest it for my audience.  If you want to read the entire piece, you can access it on line.

He starts with, “A defining characteristic of the human being is our highly developed linguistic communication system.”  Today, more than ever, language is a determinant of survival, of success.  And the otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor) has the responsibility to care for the organs of communication–the ears and the voice/language systems–from the larynx to portions of the brain.

Our challenges?

  • Hearing loss is an invisible handicap.  Even with universal screening at birth, hearing can be intact at birth only to become manifest later with its deleterious effects.
  • Some children have early appropriate language development only to lose their language.  Autistic spectrum?  Hearing loss?
  • We know that children and adolescents who have deficits in communication often fail to make it through educational milestones, and even end up in juvenile delinquency situations.  Everyone loses.

The importance of language has evolved during the last century.  As we live longer, those who will support the ever expanding over 65 age group, will need better communication skills.  And what is important here is that the development of language is a biological phenomenon with a biological basis.  Therefore, the development of language is a real medical concern and should be treated as such. So if you have a concern, make sure you voice it to your doctor.  And if he or she doesn’t listen, speak up louder and more forcefully.

And speak up early because there is a critical time when these biological systems are plastic and interventions can be more effective.  For the physicians out there, listen to parental concerns about how their children speak, and make sure you check language development skills whenever you see the patient.  You may hold the key to a child’s development of language–a key to his/her success and a key to the success of our society.

Linda Brodsky is a pediatric surgeon who blogs at The Brodsky Blog.  She is founder of Women MD Resources.

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