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What is sensory impairment?
Sensory impairment is a term used to describe blindness, deafness, hearing impairment, deafblindness and visual impairment.
The term 'sensory impairment' is used mainly by professionals; you will not find many people experiencing sensory impairment using that terminology (it is an umbrella term covering many different types of impairment).
Who is affected by sensory impairment?
Anyone can be affected by sensory impairment, older people especially.
Causes of sensory impairment include; injury or accidents, illnesses, environmental factors, genetic factors and ageing. Sensory impairments can sometimes be corrected through surgery.
Different types of sensory impairment
The main types of sensory impairment include; Hearing impairments, visual impairments, and dual sensory impairments:
1. Hearing Impairment
Inclusive of mild, moderate or severe loss of hearing. People experiencing a hearing impairment might have been born with hearing and suddenly become profoundly deaf after learning how to speak, or they could have experienced profound hearing loss from birth.
2. Visual Impairment
The majority of people experiencing a visual impairment will have a combination of very limited or restricted vision fields. Only 4% of people who experience a visual impairment have no vision. Blind people experience severe sight impairment. Partially sighted people have reduced or impaired vision.
In the UK, over 2 million people live with sight loss. It can be hard to come to terms with the diagnosis of a visual impairment; people experience many emotions, including anger, shock, fear and denial. They may go through a bereavement period before they adjust to the idea.
3. Dual sensory impairment / Deafblindness
Dual sensory impairment or deafblindness is a severe combination of hearing and visual impairment. People experiencing deafblindness may be deafblind from birth, born hard of hearing or deaf and later become blind or vice-versa. These things will affect the person's preferred method of communication.
Different types of deafblindness
There are different ways in which a person can experience deafblindness. Here are some examples:
The term is used when a person loses their hearing and sight after they have developed language.
Describing a person born with a hearing and sight impairment or develops both before developing language.
CHARGE can affect all ages; it is challenging and commonly creates problems with the eyes, ears, nose and heart. People experience a wide range of other difficulties too.
A inherited or genetic condition affecting vision, hearing and balance. An eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa (RP) causes sight loss. The condition leads to a progressive and gradual reduction in sight.
Older people and deafblindness
Most deafblind people in the UK are older people; these people will have developed sight and hearing loss later in life. Age-related hearing loss is caused mainly by wearing down of 'hair cells', tiny sensory cells in your inner ear hearing organ or cochlea. As we get older, most of us will experience some level of sensory loss.
An older person's vision and hearing loss often happen gradually, and the changes can be so subtle they may go unrecognised. Having regular hearing and sight tests can help you identify problems sooner.
Tips for communicating with an elderly relative experiencing deafblindness
Deafblindness has a lot of different variants. Some of the communication methods specific to deafblindness require experience and training. There are some simple things you can do to aid communication, such as:Get the attention of the person before communication
Touching the top of a person's arm is a common way of gently attracting their attention
Make sure they can see your face - don't cover your mouth or eat
Be clear when identifying yourself
If necessary, re-phrase sentences or repeat yourself
Be aware of your surroundings -avoid background noise and noisy places
Don't shout and speak clearly and little slower
Use facial expressions and gestures that support what you're saying
Take breaks; communication can be hard work
Don't over exaggerate lip patterns; make them clear
Write things down - experiment with coloured pens and paper and different letter sizes.
British Sign Language (BSL)
Sign language is a way to communicate visually using facial expressions, body language and gestures. Sign language is used mainly by people who have hearing impairments or are deaf.
In Britain, British sign language (BSL) is the most common sign language used to communicate with people with profound or severe hearing loss. This means that a person using BSL may find it challenging to understand and read written or spoken English.
Braille is the use of raised dots instead of written letters. Some people who have severe sight loss use Braille, and it is particularly used by those who lost their sight as a child. There are braille versions of books and magazines and braille display units for computers.
Help for you or a family member
Where to find help if you or a family member are experiencing sensory impairment
Make sure that you have regular vision and hearing tests. If you notice changes, talk to your doctor or health professional, tell them about the symptoms your or your family member is experiencing, and they will advise you.
If you are partially sighted or blind, your health professional may refer you to a specialist low-vision clinic. Staff in the clinic will be specially trained to give you advice and help you or your loved one come to terms with their diagnosis.
Some charities offer advice and support. Sense charity specifically supports people who are deafblind. Sense produce easy-to-use free resources to help older people with dual sensory loss and family members. Sense can be reached on 0300 330 9256. An alternative organisation is Deafblind UK, which helps those with progressive hearing and sight loss and deafblind people. If you are experiencing blindness or vision loss, the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) is the UK's primary charity, and they are on 0303123999
Private healthcare companies can also offer specialist care.