What Are Hearing and Speech Impairments?

Hearing and speech impairments can affect anyone, both children and adults. There are many causes for these impairments, whether it’s physical, developmental, or from an illness, and there are many ways to treat them.

Hearing impairment is a condition in which you can’t completely receive sounds through your ears. It can fluctuate or be permanent. The amount of loss can vary from being hard of hearing to complete deafness.

Hearing loss can either be conductive or sensorineural.


Conductive hearing impairment relates to:

  • ear canal
  • eardrum
  • middle ear and its bones


Sensorineural hearing loss relates to one of the following:

  • inner ear
  • nerves in your ear
  • combination of your inner ear and the nerves in your ear.

Hearing loss can be due to a wide array of things, including:

  • malformation of the ear
  • ear infection
  • allergies
  • tumors
  • impacted earwax
  • otosclerosis, a hereditary disorder causing deafness due to overgrowth of bone in the inner ear
  • exposure to loud noise
  • head trauma
  • virus or disease
  • aging

These problems can affect one or both of your ears. Treatment can include medicine or, in some cases, surgery. Other treatments include:

  • hearing aids
  • cochlear implants
  • audiological or aural rehabilitation

Read more: What Causes Hearing Impairment? 29 Possible Conditions »

Speech impairment, also called communication disorder, or voice disorder, is a condition in which you have trouble forming sounds. Speech impairments vary, from occasionally not being able to produce sounds, to not being able to produce sound at all. Symptoms of speech impairment include:

  • stuttering
  • adding extra sounds and words
  • elongating words
  • distorting sounds when talking
  • visible frustration when trying to communicate
  • taking frequent pauses when trying to communicate
  • problems with articulation
  • problems with your voice

Speech impairment can be a problem with the following activities:

  • articulation, or making sounds
  • phonological processes, or hearing and repeating sound patterns

Speech impairment can be caused by many things, such as:

  • developmental disorders
  • neurological disorders
  • genetic syndromes
  • hearing loss
  • illness

Some mild speech disorders disappear after time. Treatment aims to improve articulation through speech therapy, and by strengthening vocal cords and other muscles used to make speech.

Read more: Speech Disorders »

Many different treatments help hearing problems. Hearing aids and cochlear implants amplify sounds for better hearing. Other techniques, such as lip reading, can help you learn to adapt to hearing impairment.

Early intervention in children, before 6 months of age, can help them develop and learn at the same rate as their peers. Because children with hearing impairments learn the skill of hearing, rather than recover from their impairment, it’s often called hearing habilitation.

Hearing habilitation includes:

  • hearing aids
  • listening strategies
  • assistive technology, such as:
    • amplified telephones
    • personal frequency modulation
    • FM systems
    • infrared systems

Cochlear implants can also be helpful. These are devices that are surgically implanted into your ear. They use microphones to detect sound and transmit it to your auditory nerve, avoiding damaged portions of your ear.

Hearing rehabilitation helps adults with hearing problems. These services include:

  • hearing aids
  • cochlear implants
  • listening strategies
  • communication techniques
  • assistive technology
  • support groups

Speech therapy can help individuals with a range of speech impairment conditions, such as:

  • speech fluency problems
  • stuttering disorders
  • language issues
  • voice disorders, such as:
    • vocal cord nodules and polyps
    • vocal cord paralysis
    • spasmodic dysphonia
    • swallowing disorders, often a result of:
      • nervous system disorders
      • gastroesophageal reflex disease (GERD)
      • stroke
      • head or spinal cord injury
      • written language disorders
      • developmental disorders

Your speech therapist will create a program for you, including:

  • activities to help you develop proper grammar and sentence structure
  • exercises to help you strengthen and learn how to move your lips, mouth, and tongue to make certain sounds
  • communication methods, such as:
    • sign language
    • gestures
    • facial expressions
    • assistive technology

You may also have to practice exercises to strengthen your muscles for eating and swallowing, if you have trouble swallowing.

Many organizations can help you learn more about hearing and speech impairments. These include:

  • Center for Hearing and Communication. This organization provides services to individuals with hearing problems, including:
    • hearing aids
    • assistive devices
    • listening studio therapy
    • cochlear implants

There are also resources for:

  • speech reading
  • speech therapy
  • emotional support programs
  • Alexander Graham Bell Association: This association focuses on public education of hearing problems. They also organize the Listening and Spoken Language Knowledge Center, which provides information and support for parents who have children with hearing impairments.
  • Association of Late-Deafened Adults: This association has information on support groups for hearing loss in adults.
  • American Speech-Language-Hearing Association: This organization provides resources for the following impairments:
    • hearing
    • balance
    • speech
    • language
    • swallowing disorders

It also provides information about advocacy and health insurance.

Hearing and speech impairments can occur in anyone. They may be the result of a particular circumstance, or a combination of causes:

  • You may be born with them.
  • You may develop them with age.
  • You may develop them from a disease or illness.

If detected early in children, extra care and assistance can keep your child learning at the same rate as their peers. Whatever your age and situation, there are many programs and services available to assist you with hearing and speech.