High prevalence of hearing disorders at the Special Olympics indicate need to screen persons with intellectual disability

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Persons with intellectual disabilities (ID) are at increased risk for hearing impairment which often remains undetected. If left untreated, such hearing impairments may worsen the social and communicative problems of these persons. The aims of this study are to determine the prevalence of hearing impairment, to specify type and degree of hearing loss, and to evaluate the sensitivity and specificity of the screening in this population.


During the German Special Olympics Summer Games 2006, 552 athletes with ID had their hearing screened according to the international protocol of Healthy Hearing, Special Olympics. This screening protocol includes otoscopy, measurement of distortion product otoacoustic emissions, and – if necessary – tympanometry and pure tone audiometry (PTA) screening at 2 and 4 kHz. Additionally, 195 athletes underwent a full diagnostic PTA. The results of the screening and diagnostic PTA were compared.


Of the 524 athletes who completed the screening protocol, 76% passed and 24% failed it. Ear wax was removed in 48% of all athletes. 42% of the athletes were recommended to consult an otolaryngologist or an acoustician. Of the 99 athletes whose screening-based suspicion of a hearing loss was confirmed with diagnostic PTA, 74 had an undetected hearing loss. The correlation (Cramer's V) between screening and diagnostic PTA was .98. The sensitivity of the screening was 100% and the specificity 98%.


The screening reliably detects hearing disorders among persons with ID. The prevalence of hearing impairment in this population is considerably higher than in the general population, and the proportion of undetected hearing impairments is large, even among people with only mild and moderate ID, as examined in this study. Therefore, a screening is highly recommended, and special attention from caregivers and professionals as well as regular hearing assessment and standard therapy programmes are required for persons with ID.

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