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The Difference Between Deaf and Hard of Hearing

Posted on March 10, 2013 at 7:25 PM
What is the difference between a person who is
 “deaf,” “Deaf,” or “hard of hearing”?  

The deaf and hard of hearing community is diverse.  There are variations in the cause and degree of hearing loss, age of onset, educational background, communication methods, and how individuals feel about their hearing loss.  How people “label” or identify themselves is personal and may reflect identification with the deaf and hard of hearing community, the degree to which they can hear, or the relative age of onset.  For example, some people identify themselves as “late-deafened,” indicating that they experienced a loss of hearing later in life. 
Other people identify themselves as “deaf-blind,” which usually indicates that they have some degree of hearing loss and some degree of vision loss.  Some people believe that the term “people with hearing loss” is inclusive and efficient.  However, some people who were born deaf or hard of hearing do not think of themselves as having lost their hearing.  Over the years, the most commonly accepted terms have come to be “deaf,” “Deaf,” and “hard of hearing.”  

 “Deaf” and “deaf”   

According to Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, in Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture (1988):   

We use the lowercase deaf when referring to the audiological condition of not hearing, and the uppercase Deaf when referring to a particular group of deaf people who share a language – American Sign Language (ASL) – and a culture.     

“Hard of Hearing” 
 
“Hard-of-hearing” can denote a person with a mild-to-moderate hearing loss.  Or it can denote a deaf person who does not have/want any cultural affiliation with the Deaf community, or both.  The HOH dilemma:  in some ways hearing, in some ways deaf, in others, neither.     

Deaf Life, “For Hearing People Only” (October 1997).   

Individuals can choose an audiological or cultural perspective.  It’s all about choices, comfort level, mode of communication, and acceptance.    

There are many people who persist in using terms other than “deaf” and “hard of hearing.”  The alternative terms are often seen in print, heard on radio and television, and picked up in casual conversations all over.   

Deaf and Dumb -- A relic from the medieval English era, this is the granddaddy of all negative labels pinned on deaf and hard of hearing people.  The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, pronounced us “deaf and dumb,” because he felt that deaf people were incapable of being taught, of learning, and of reasoned thinking.  To his way of thinking, if a person could not use his/her voice in the same way as hearing people, then there was no way that this person could develop cognitive abilities.  (Source: Deaf Heritage, by Jack Gannon, 1980)   

In later years, “dumb” came to mean “silent.”  This definition still persists, because that is how people see deaf people.  The term is offensive to deaf and hard of hearing people for a number of reasons.  One, deaf and hard of hearing people are by no means “silent” at all.  They use sign language, lip-reading, vocalizations, and so on to communicate.  Communication is not reserved for hearing people alone, and using one’s voice is not the only way to communicate.  Two, “dumb” also has a second meaning:  stupid.  Deaf and hard of hearing people have encountered plenty of people who subscribe to the philosophy that if you cannot use your voice well, you don’t have much else “upstairs,” and have nothing going for you.  

Obviously, this is incorrect, ill-informed, and false.  Deaf and hard of hearing people have repeatedly proved that they have much to contribute to the society at large.   

Deaf-Mute – Another offensive term from the 18th-19th century, “mute” also means silent and without voice.  This label is technically inaccurate, since deaf and hard of hearing people generally have functioning vocal chords.  The challenge lies with the fact that to successfully modulate your voice, you generally need to be able to hear your own voice.  Again, because deaf and hard of hearing people use various methods of communication other than or in addition to using their voices, they are not truly mute.  True communication occurs when one’s message is understood by others, and they can respond in kind.  

Hearing-impaired – This term was at one time preferred, largely because it was viewed as politically correct.  To declare oneself or another person as deaf or blind, for example, was considered somewhat bold, rude, or impolite.  At that time, it was thought better to use the word “impaired” along with “visually,” “hearing,” “mobility,” and so on.  “Hearing-impaired” was a well-meaning term that is not accepted or used by many deaf and hard of hearing people.   

For many people, the words “deaf” and “hard of hearing” are not negative.  Instead, the term “hearing-impaired” is viewed as negative.  The term focuses on what people can’t do.  It establishes the standard as “hearing” and anything different as “impaired,” or substandard, hindered, or damaged.  It implies that something is not as it should be and ought to be fixed if possible.  To be fair, this is probably not what people intended to convey by the term “hearing impaired.”   

Every individual is unique, but there is one thing we all have in common:  we all want to be treated with respect.  To the best of our own unique abilities, we have families, friends, communities, and lives that are just as fulfilling as anyone else.  We may be different, but we are not less.   

What’s in a name?  Plenty!  Words and labels can have a profound effect on people.  Show your respect for people by refusing to use outdated or offensive terms.  When in doubt, ask the individual how they identify themselves.

Categories: Hearing Loss

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