The Question: Is the much-used statistic ’10 million deaf people’ helpful?

Posted on September 26, 2014

An often quoted statistic about deafness and hearing loss in the UK is that there are ten million people who have some level of deafness.

It’s normally the first piece of information that’s offered to newbies on the subject.

The intention of using the statistic is to make people consider that deafness or hearing loss is much more common than people think.

The statistic can also be used to present a case to government for increased funding into research, screening programs or other big-money schemes.

‘The bigger the number, the better the chance that policymakers will consider it’, I was told when I discussed the use of the statistic with a campaigner.

So, we see the merits of the use of the statistic; but when the ten-million stat is given even cursory thought, the claim begins to feel, to use some political jargon, a bit spun.

The first time that I was told that one-in-six of the population had a hearing loss, my immediate thought process led me to the large open plan office that I used to work in.

There used to be 150 people working there so if one in six had hearing loss, then that meant 25 should be in some way deaf. I remember that only two were. One was the maintenance man – and that was through ten years service.

LIMPING-THINKERCommon curiosity or scepticism might mean many more think about the people they know and subsequently reject the ‘ten-million’ statistic as spin, an exaggeration or worse, as an outright lie.

That’s not a good starting point for any charitable ask or pitch to government.

A lie, however, it is not.

It is a fact – although one that is heavily age related and takes some explaining.

Of the ten million, 9.2 million* have a mild or moderate hearing loss, the two lowest categories, while 800,000 people are severely or profoundly deaf.

The vast majority won’t be, for one reason or another, using hearing aids. In fact, only two million – or 3% – of the UK population have them, and of those, only 1.4 million wear them regularly.

Who knows what proportion of the 10 million even perceive that they have much of a ‘problem’ at all, let alone admit to it?

Some enjoy a quality of life much the same as they always had and may gracefully accept a little deafness as part of the ageing process.

When it comes to age, 6.3 of the 10 million are past the age of retirement but hearing loss really takes off in the over 70’s.

Only 135,000 people of working age are severely or profoundly deaf. That’s the same number as the population of Gloucester, merely 0.2% of the UK population.

What difference does it make if in deaf awareness courses, delegates leaving thinking that 10 million people have a problem with hearing loss?

It is probably a good thing that people appreciate how close to home hearing loss could be. That it can affect anyone at any time in their lives.

I do wonder, however, if the implications of giving people such a big number could be far more serious.

Let’s imagine that major government funding is secured on the basis that there are ten million people in need and hundreds of millions of pounds are allocated over many years to tackle the problem.

Could that mean that those precious millions of pounds are frittered away on some people who don’t even feel that they even have a problem, while the 800,000 people who are severely to profoundly deaf might feel that their issues are not being addressed enough – issues like employment, access, inequality, or suitable care in old age.

What a travesty it would be if extra millions were finally spent on deafness and hearing loss, only to be poured into programmes aimed at trying to give hearing aids to millions of people who don’t want them, while the quality of life of a much smaller number of people, slides backward.

So, the question for you, the reader, is this: Is the statistic that ten million people in the UK have a hearing loss useful? Or does it potentially lead attention and funds away from those who really need it?

*Statistics from Action on Hearing Loss

Andy is Chairman of the Peterborough and District Deaf Children’s Society and teaches sign language in primary schools. Contact him on twitter @LC_AndyP

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Posted in: The Question