Learning to listen and speak, let alone understanding others, is usually much harder for someone who has hearing loss, especially from birth, or a very young age. Learn more about hearing loss.

The RIDBC Renwick Centre has created the Auditory System web-site, which is aimed at anyone looking for an introduction to hearing loss and the human auditory system.

General Information

Deafness can be simply defined as the inability to hear.

Hearing impairment may be more specifically described according to its degree:

  • Mild
  • Moderate
  • Severe
  • Profound

Hearing losses are also generally categorised according to whereabouts along the hearing 'pathway' they occur.

A conductive loss occurs when something interferes with sound travelling between the outer and inner ears (eg, infection). These are usually medically or surgically treatable.

A sensorineural loss results from damage to the cochlea (the organ of hearing) or the auditory nerve. It may cause reduced sound levels, distortion and other problems. Hearing aids or cochlear implants are often recommended.

The term 'Deaf' (often with a capital D) is often used to describe people who identify with the Deaf community, which uses Auslan (Australian Sign Language).


Some of the more common causes of hearing impairment are:

  • Genetic conditions
  • Infection during pregnancy, including cytomegalovirus, rubella, syphilis, herpes and toxoplasmosis
  • Birth complications
  • Craniofacial abnormalities
  • Meningitis
  • Head trauma or perforation of the eardrum
  • Persistent ear infections (otitis media)
  • Some syndromes and degenerative disorders

Learning to speak and talk

Most children with hearing impairment use a hearing aid or a cochlear implant to help them understand speech.

These children often require support and intensive spoken language input to help them develop speech and listening skills.

RIDBC assists families and children to develop these skills throughout their entire schooling. We use a range of techniques (sometimes known as auditory-verbal and auditory oral habilitation) to help children learn to listen and talk, choosing the best strategies for each individual.

For very young children, we help parents to learn techniques and methods for developing spoken language at home on a daily basis.

For school-aged children, we teach students to maximise the use of their residual hearing and to develop the skills, which enable them to learn through spoken language.


Some people with hearing impairment use lipreading to help them understand what others are saying.

Lipreading is very difficult. It is estimated that 70% of sounds look the same on the lips – for example:

  • baby
  • maybe, and
  • pay me

...all look the same on your lips when you say them out loud.

Lipreading gives clues to augment existing hearing, but it cannot be used alone for unambiguous communication, and it requires a great deal of concentration. It can be very exhausting.

Sign Language

Auslan (Australian Sign Language) is the language of Australia's Deaf community. It incorporates signs, body movements, facial expressions, mime and gesture.

Auslan has its own grammar and vocabulary that are very different to English. It can communicate a rich variety of concepts and subtle meanings.

It uses fingerspellling for words in English without signs (such as surnames).

Auslan has its roots in English, Scottish and Irish Sign Languages. It is different from American and French Sign Languages. It is a naturally-evolved language, just like English. New signs are always being created.

Auslan was officially recognised in Australia’s National Language Policy in 1987.

RIDBC researchers have developed Auslan dictionaries and the interactive Auslan website, Signbank.

Other signed languages used in Australia include:

  • Signed English, a straight conversion of English to signs
  • Pidgin Signed English