Listen Up: Homelessness and Hearing Impairment

hearing loss and hearing aids

“Our results suggest that homeless adults have a high prevalence of hearing impairment, even when living within a system of universal health insurance; awareness of health care benefits through social assistance programs was poor. Results from this study may prompt initiatives surrounding homeless outreach and health screening.”

– Christopher W. Noel, MD, along with multiple authors for the Canadian Medical Association

When describing Canada’s homeless community, the word vulnerable is often used, but perhaps not for the reason you’d expect. Clearly, the very state of living without a stable home is a vulnerable one indeed. But what we’re not coming right out and mentioning is that vulnerability to other things is a door that sadly leads to the street as well.

The average Canadian citizen envisions the diseases that plague the homeless community as being related to addiction or mental illness. This is true in some cases, but it’s not the overwhelming majority of cases. 

Mostly, people are priced out of housing due to the lack of adequate income. Incidentally, this is the leading cause of homelessness in Canada. It should be duly noted that a lack of affordable housing trails right behind. These two intertwined factors are forcing hundreds of thousands of Canadians into homelessness.

But Listen Closely. Hearing Impairment is One Overlooked Disability Contributing to Homelessness in Canada

2020 prospective cross-sectional study published by the National Library of Medicine identified an overlooked impairment in the homeless community. That impairment is hearing loss.

To conduct this study, a massive collective of writers and researchers analyzed 132 participants from 10 Toronto-based shelters who had been homeless for a median duration of 2 years. Results portrayed alarming rates of high-frequency hearing loss and speech-frequency hearing loss within this group.

Participants were eligible for social assistance, including health care, but only 28% knew that those benefits covered hearing aids and hearing exams.

How Hearing Loss Contributes to and Exacerbates Homelessness

Hearing handicaps hinder communication, which is at the center of all human interaction. While non-verbal body language is important, verbalizing and internalizing conversation is also a critical activity.

Individuals struggling with hearing impairments can experience social isolation at higher rates than people without these disabilities. Social isolation is not only an effect but also a cause of homelessness.

Imagine being a homeless person who feels both invisible and unheard. This is happening to unhoused community members suffering, often in silence, from hearing impairment.

International research from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey showed correlations between hearing impairment and low-income or unemployed status. This means that individuals suffering from these conditions are often isolated and underpaid, two factors that serve as gateways into homelessness.

Living unhoused does not help the situation in the least. People who have trouble securing a stable home and job are statistically more likely to be exposed to noise pollution. This lends itself to a vicious health cycle that will likely go untreated and undiagnosed.

Canadians Experiencing the Horrors of Homelessness Must Always be on Alert. This is a Difficult Task for Hearing-Impaired Individuals.

Hearing is a pivotal part of survival regardless of housing status. When life’s alarms go off around us, the ability to hear them keeps us a step ahead.

We use our ears to determine the safety of environments, from assessing whether there’s a fire by the absence or presence of an alarm to assessing a coworker’s mood based on the tone of their voice. We use our hearing to determine the distance of oncoming traffic or the doneness of a favorite dish on the stove. Our hearing is used in Zoom meetings, conferences, and entertainment venues. Hearing loss means losing a lot.

In the context of homelessness, the need for healthy hearing is amplified. Unhoused people live in survival mode, relocating frequently and constantly evading dangers housed people can’t imagine. Assessing the distance of oncoming traffic can mean the difference between life and death if you’re sleeping on a street corner. Determining the tone of your employer could be of critical importance if your only route out of a shelter is that promotion you’ve been trying for. 

Unfortunately, gruesome brutality against members of the homeless community is not uncommon. This group needs their hearing to assess possible predators who intend to inflict bodily injury or even death.

Urge Your Representatives to Enact Policies that Protect Vulnerable Members of the Homeless Community

Hearing impairment is an isolating event on its own. When combined with homelessness, the consequences can be dire, causing even more suffering for our neighbors without walls.

The authors of the aforementioned paper reveal that there is insufficient data right now to address this issue. Urge your legislators to protect vulnerable members of the homeless community through better legislation and, of course, housing.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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