Do 20% of South Africa’s population have hearing loss?

A media release by the University of Witwatersrand claimed that 20% of the South African population “have significant and permanent hearing loss”, but the data was misinterpreted.

Ahead of International Ear Care Day on 3 March the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg sent out a media release claiming that 20% of the population in South Africa “is reported to have significant and permanent hearing loss”.

The Star and Citizen newspapers then republished the claim online.

If correct, that would mean that more than 10 million of South Africa’s current population of about 55 million people have a difficulty hearing.

‘Percentage of disabled persons who were affected’

Asked for the source of the statistic, Refilwe Mabula from the Wits Communications department provided a link to a 2001 census report on the prevalence of disability in South Africa. She specifically referred us to a table labelled “Percentage of disabled persons by type of disability”.

This showed that the prevalence of sight disability was at 32.1%, followed by physical disability (29.6%), hearing (20.1%), emotional disability (15.7%), intellectual disability (12.4%) and communication disability at 6.5%. Crucially though is that the paragraph above explains that it referred to “the percentage of disabled persons who were affected by the various types of disabilities”.

South Africa’s 2001 census found that 2,255,982 people, or 5% of the population then, had some kind of disability. Of this group 453,104 people suffered from a hearing impairment.

What do more recent figures show?

South Africa’s 2011 Census found the prevalence of hearing difficulties among people older than 5 stood at 3.6 % nationally, a significant increase from the 2001 figure.

This, Statistics South Africa explained in the Census 2011 report, can be attributed to a change in the question asked about hearing loss.

In 2001, the question was: “Does the person have any serious disability that prevents his/her full participation in life activities?” The possible answers were none, sight, hearing, communication, physical, intellectual or an emotional disability.

However, in 2011 Stats SA followed recommendations from the Washington Group on Disability Statistics, a voluntary working group of international statistical personnel to improve the quality and comparability of disability statistics around the world.

The question about disability was phrased as  follows: “Does (name) have difficulty in the following” to which the possible answers were:

  • A = Seeing even when using eyeglasses?
  • B = Hearing even when using a hearing aid?
  • C = Communicating in his/her language (i.e. understanding others or being understood by others)?
  • D = Walking or climbing stairs?
  • E = Remembering or concentrating?
  • F = With self-care such as washing all over, dressing or feeding?

The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) tested the adapted question among 26 focus groups prior to the 2011 Census. The researchers found that it led to higher disability estimates because the question also captured people with mild and moderate difficulties who may not self-identify as disabled.

For example, the national profile showed that 2.9% of the population older than 5 (1,251,907 people) had mild to moderate difficulty in hearing in 2011. Those who experienced severe difficulty in hearing constituted 0.7% of that population (288,369 people).

Conclusion: Census 2011 data show 0.7% of SA people have severe hearing loss

The table that Wits University based a media release on showed that 20% of the disabled population in 2001 had hearing loss – not 20% of the total population.

More recent data from the 2011 Census put the share of people in South Africa experiencing severe hearing loss at 0.7% of the population older than 5.

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