Sensory impairment can be a big challenge for individuals who suffer from it. Many people have a condition from birth which results in sensory loss, while for others, it develops over time. Both circumstances are difficult to comprehend, especially for the individual with the impairment. Continue reading as we explain the difference between congenital and acquired sensory loss.

What is sensory loss?

Sensory loss, or deafblindness, can be defined as somebody who has lost the ability to see and/or hear at any point in time, either from birth or later in life.

Deafblindness is the term used to describe a person who has suffered from both hearing and sight loss, and it is a disability in its own right. The impairment greatly affects day-to-day life in terms of accessing information, communicating with others and independence. 

Being deafblind doesn’t necessarily mean total deafness and blindness. Individuals with the condition can have some hearing and sight, but are mostly impaired and still face daily difficulties.

In 1995, the Department of Health legally defined deafblindness as: “A person is regarded as deafblind if their combined sight and hearing impairment cause difficulties with communication, access to information and mobility. This includes people with a progressive sight and hearing loss.”

Other names for deafblindness

There are two other terms that can be used to describe deafblindness, and they are:

  • Dual-sensory impairment
  • Multi-sensory impairment

Many people choose to use the term ‘deafblindness’ because it better defines more severe hearing and sight loss. Others prefer “dual-sensory” because they feel it describes more accurately how it feels to be deafblind. For others, multi-sensory impairment is the preferred term because it doesn’t just focus on hearing and sight loss, but can also include how the brain handles the information it gets to ears and eyes.

Who does deafblindness affect?

Deafblindness can affect people and children of all ages. It is more common in older people as hearing and sight naturally degenerates with age.

In the UK, there are more than 400,000 people who can be defined as deafblind. With the ageing population, it’s thought that there could be over 600,000 by the year 2030.

What is congenital sensory loss?

To explain the difference between congenital and acquired sensory loss, you must first understand the two definitions.

Congenital sensory loss means that a person was either born with hearing and sight impairments, or it becomes clear within the first two years of life. This can be because of any number of things, including an infection during pregnancy, premature birth, birth trauma, or a rare genetic condition inherited from a parent.

Conditions that can cause congenital sensory loss

  • Problems associated with premature birth (before 37 weeks).
  • The baby catches an infection while in the womb (rubella, toxoplasmosis, cytomegalovirus).
  • Genetic conditions such as CHARGE syndrome or Down’s syndrome.
  • Cerebral palsy is a condition that affects the nervous system, coordination and movement. 
  • Health problems caused by alcohol intake during pregnancy (foetal alcohol syndrome).

What is acquired deafblindness?

Acquired deafblindness means a person has developed sensory loss of sight and hearing later in life. Anybody can become deafblind at any age because of injury, illness or ageing. Occasionally, people can be born with either a hearing or a vision impairment only, but as they age their other senses start to change or worsen.

Conditions that can cause acquired sensory loss

  • Age-related hearing loss.
  • A genetic condition that affects hearing, vision and balance (Usher syndrome).
  • Age-related eye problems, such as age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, or glaucoma.
  • Diabetic retinopathy, which is a condition where the cells at the back of the eye are damaged by high blood sugar levels.
  • Brain damage from severe head injury, stroke, encephalitis, or meningitis.

What are some signs of acquired hearing or sight loss?

There are a number of signs you can look out for if you suspect someone is suffering from acquired sensory loss. If some of the below symptoms appear, advise the person – or yourself – to speak to a medical professional.

  • Not hearing somebody if they speak from behind the person.
  • Delay in responding to people during conversation.
  • Trouble in following a conversation, especially in a group of people.
  • Not responding to noises around, like a doorbell.
  • Having to ask others to speak slower and clearer.
  • Finding it hard to see clearly in low or bright light.
  • Difficulty reading facial expressions and not recognising people they know.
  • Not responding to somebody smiling in their direction.
  • Relying on touch to find things.
  • Bumping into and tripping over things regularly.
  • Difficult moving around familiar places.
  • Not making eye contact with others during conversation.

How Seashell can help

Seashell is a UK-leading specialist in supporting children and young people with complex difficulties, disabilities and additional communication needs. We have harnessed this unique expertise to create a range of specialist assessment, support and training services that we provide to families and organisations across the education, health and care sectors.

To find out more about what we do and who we are, don’t hesitate to contact us on 0161 610 0100 or email us at