Deafness or hearing impairment is a full or partial decrease in the ability to detect or understand sounds caused by a wide range of biological and environmental factors, loss of hearing can happen to any organism that perceives sound. “Hearing impaired” is often used to refer to those who are deaf, although the term is viewed negatively by members of Deaf culture, who prefer the terms “Deaf” and “Hard of Hearing”.
Sound waves vary in amplitude and in frequency. Amplitude is the sound wave’s peak pressure variation. Frequency is the number of cycles per second of a sinusoidal component of a sound wave.
Loss of the ability to detect some frequencies, or to detect low-amplitude sounds that an organism naturally detects, is a hearing impairment.
Loudness, Frequency, and Discrimination deficiencies
Hearing sensitivity is indicated by the quietest sound that an individual can detect, called the hearing threshold.
In the case of people and some animals, this threshold can be accurately measured by a behavioral audiogram. A record is made of the quietest sound that consistently prompts a response from the listener.
The test is carried out for sounds of different frequencies. There are also electro-physiological tests that can be performed without requiring a behavioral response.
Normal hearing thresholds are not the same for all frequencies in any species of animal. If different frequencies of sound are played at the same amplitude, some will be loud, and others quiet or even completely inaudible. Generally, if the gain or amplitude is increased, a sound is more likely to be perceived.
Ordinarily, when animals use sound to communicate, hearing in that type of animal is most sensitive for the frequencies produced by calls, or, in the case of humans, speech. This tuning of hearing exists at many levels of the auditory system, all the way from the physical characteristics of the ear to the nerves and tracts that convey the nerve impulses of the auditory portion of the brain.
A hearing impairment exists when an individual is not sensitive to the sounds normally heard by its kind. In human beings, the term hearing impairment is usually reserved for people who have relative insensitivity to sound in the speech frequencies.
The severity of a hearing impairment is categorized according to how much louder a sound must be made over the usual levels before the listener can detect it. In profound deafness, even the loudest sounds that can be produced by the instrument used to measure hearing (audiometer) may not be detected.
There is another aspect to hearing that involves the quality of a sound rather than amplitude. In people, that aspect is usually measured by tests of speech discrimination. Basically, these tests require that the sound is not only detected but understood. There are very rare types of hearing impairments which affect discrimination alone.