People like simplicity. Because of that, we often try to think of things as absolutes. When you think of the word “deaf” what do you think of? Many people would say that to be “deaf” means having no ability to hear at all. I know I certainly believed this at a younger age. Is it right to think of a person’s hearing abilities in terms of binary absolutes?

If we look at how other binary concepts have changed over time, there is a good argument to be made for adopting a spectral conceptualization. A favourite comparison of mine is that of the autism spectrum. People with autism are nowadays often just referred to as “on the spectrum” with a greater appreciation for the unique abilities of each individual. There’s no dividing line between “able” and “disabled” or “normal” and “abnormal.”  Instead its understood that no people’s brains are wired the same way – everyone exists on a broader, overarching spectrum. There’s even a word for this – neurodiversity.

Is it possible that audiodiversity could one day be used to refer to the unique hearing capabilities of each individual?

Currently so-called “normal” hearing thresholds have a range of 25 dB. So even in the clinically “normal” population there is still a huge range of hearing ability. Even within this population, there can be two people with the same hearing thresholds, but widely varying abilities to hear in more complex situations, such as in noise, or while simultaneously performing other tasks. As well, many people experience temporary shifts in hearing ability in their lives. Whether its due to transient ear infections, exposure to loud noises, or changes in cognitive function (the ability to apply meaning to sounds we hear). Finally, its just accepted that hearing ability will universally decline with age. Is it right to think that the elderly just one day cross over from “abled” to “disabled?” Or is it better to think of age-related hearing loss as a slow movement along a wide, but normal, hearing spectrum.

To say we currently think of hearing as a truly binary concept isn’t quite fair. We do have a third, middling category of “hard-of-hearing,” “hearing impaired,” “partly deaf” or whichever adjectives you choose to use. However fitting the entire audiodiversity of the world into these three categories still isn’t accurate. We need to appreciate that every individual has unique level of ability to hear, as well as to listen (for their brain to make sense of what they are hearing). We also need to understand that in a single moment, each person’s abilities cover a wide area of the spectrum, and their abilities in that instance depend on the context and surroundings they find themselves in. Finally, we need to realize that hearing is dynamic, and will change throughout the lifespan.

What do you think? Is audiodiversity the direction we need to move towards when it comes to thinking about hearing abilities?

(This post was originally intended to just be a revision of this previous post: but I found myself wanting to go in a bit of a different direction here)

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