An Overlooked and Under-Served Obese Population: the Deaf

Cheerleader in Air take #1

We are familiar with the idea that in the United States, children of color are more susceptible to forces, including their own genetic makeup, that cause childhood obesity. There is another demographic whose vulnerability has nothing to do with race: the deaf. The conjunction of deafness and obesity is studied by an organization signified by a mouthful of letters: RPRC:NCDHR, which stands for Rochester Prevention Research Center: National Center for Deaf Health Research.

RPRC is the world’s only research center that employs CBPR, or Community-Based Participatory Research. The Center’s webpage describes “Deaf Strong Hospital 2015,” a role-playing exercise in which deaf people pretend to be health care professionals and professionals, as part of their training, try to explain their medical needs to people who only speak American Sign Language. The results are probably hilarious, and also very revealing of exactly why it has been difficult for the hard-of-hearing population to make its problems understood.

Studying the Health of the Deaf and Hearing Loss Communities

RPRC sees two distinct “health disparity communities”—those who were born deaf and learned American Sign Language, and those who lost their hearing somewhere along the way. Both groups are characterized as overlooked, excluded, understudied, and underserved. Also, RPRC holds the belief that education and training are needed for researchers from all three sectors—the hearing, the Deaf, and the hearing loss communities.

In 2008, RPRC:NCDHR designed a sign language survey and developed “generalizable measures and methods that can be used in research and health surveillance with Deaf populations in other locations.” It included questions from other established studies like the Youth Risk Behavior Survey and the National College Health Assessment. The result was a Deaf Health Survey covering 98 items. In the initial round, most of the respondents were either born deaf or had lost their hearing very early. In 2008:

Deaf adults reported low rates of current smoking, and higher rates of overweight/obesity, recent suicide attempts and experiences of interpersonal violence.

The researchers went on to survey adults at the 40th Reunion celebration of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. The results were similar, and also confirmed that “health disparities exist in deaf groups with high educational attainment.”

The Deaf Weight Wise Program

More recently, the university published more information on its Deaf Weight Wise program, a core research project for deaf American Sign Language users designed to “establish the effectiveness of an intervention to reduce weight gain and obesity.” They say with pride:

To our knowledge, this is the first randomized control trial of a healthy lifestyle intervention to be conducted in a Deaf population.

Some of the reasons why deaf people would become obese are easy to understand. Hearing people have stimuli coming in all the time, whether intentional like listening to music, or accidental like the constant ongoing hum of ambient noise that accompanies life. A hearing person can listen to a radio show or podcast, or talk on the phone, or eavesdrop on other people’s interesting conversations, while doing any number of other things like peeling potatoes, mowing the lawn, driving, or catching some rays. A deaf person cannot multi-task in the same way.

The lonely, profound boredom of deafness is difficult to imagine, but when assessing the impact, it helps to remember that sensory deprivation is used as a form of torture. Then there is the fact that when one sense is lost, the others become more acute. However much pleasure a hearing person gets from a piece of strawberry pie, it’s possible that a deaf person enjoys it even more.

A brand new report from Padbury, Australia, (a suburb of Perth) describes the Active Deaf Kids program,designed to tackle the problem. Irena Farinacci of the basketball Deaflympians (and a Deaf Sports Australia development officer) told reporter Mark Donaldson that deaf children have significantly fewer opportunities to participate in sports than their hearing classmates. Last month, 60 kids attended when Farinacci presented an event, along with other deaf athletes from basketball, cricket, and soccer, designed to inspire younger children to participate more and become more fit.

And then…there are the antibiotics, which can also be a factor, and which we will discuss next time.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “About RPRC:NCDHR,” Rochester.edu, undated
Source: “Deaf Health Survey 2008: Determinants of Health Risk in the Deaf Population,” Rochester.edu, 2008
Source: “An Update on Deaf Weight Wise (2009-2014)” Rochester.edu, 2014
Source: “Active inspiration,” CommunityNews.com.au, 06/23/15
Image by daveynin

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