A Hearing Loss & Late Deafened Blog

On Developing A “deaf, not Deaf” Identity. . .

In Uncategorized on May 1, 2008 at 2:49 am

Val’s blog post touched a nerve in me.  She didn’t consider herself “deaf” until she got her cochlear implant.  Only then did she begin to identify herself as a deaf person. 

What changed? 

I found myself nodding while reading her blog.  This question of “When are you considered deaf?” comes up among hard-of-hearing and late-deafened people all the time. 

Mostly what it boils down to is personal identity.  There is no black and white answer where hard-of-hearing stops and deafness begins.  Two people with the same audiograms may fall on different sides of the hard-of-hearing/deaf fence.  Because of the complicated dynamics between various types of hearing losses, when they first occurred, and environmental factors, it’s hard to pin-point exactly how much one struggles to hear compared to another.

My own personal transition into deafness took a long time.  A mild to moderate loss progressed into a moderate to profound ski-slope loss over thirty years.  During that time I went through stages of denial, grief, shock, fear, then finally pride and acceptance.  For several years, I used the term hearing-impaired– mainly because I didn’t know where I fit between hard-of-hearing or deaf.  I had too much hearing loss to feel comfortable using the hard-of-hearing, but I wasn’t culturally Deaf either.


A turning point happened one beautiful day while skiing in the North Cascades.  I had just gotten off a chairlift when a man with no legs whizzed by on a pair of skis built especially for him.  Awestruck, I watched him navigate a double diamond with ease.  Damn!  He skied better with NO legs than everyone else around him.  Was he DIS-abled??

Then, I got to thinking. . .What did it mean to be “impaired?”  Subconsciously, what does that do to your psyche when you identify yourself as impaired?  It sounds so broken– like you’re a reject.  Was I “impaired?”  Sure–my cochleas were dysfunctional, but I had overcome so many obstacles.  “Impaired” put the focus on what I couldn’t do rather than what I COULD do.  Too negative!  I had accomplished a lot despite the daily challenges of living with hearing loss.  I was proud of what I could do.  “Impaired?”  HA! 

So I stopped using hearing-impaired.  Still. . .since I didn’t know how to define my hearing loss, I decided not to define it at all. I simply told people my hearing was “very, very bad” as in, “I have very, very bad hearing and need to read your lips.  Can you face me?” 

It wasn’t until I took ASL and began applying it to my life that I started seeing myself as definitely deaf (with small d).   And a funny thing happened.  Once I admitted to being deaf, a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.  I didn’t have to pretend to be hearing anymore.  I am deaf.  And it’s OK!! 

If you don’t know where you belong in the Deaf/deaf/Hard-of-hearing slots, below are three on-line definitions of “deaf” I collected before writing this article.  But remember, deafness is more about personal identification than anything else.  What you feel most comfortable calling yourself is what you are.

Here’s the dictionary:

 deaf    Audio Help   /dɛf/ Pronunciation KeyShow Spelled Pronunciation[def] Pronunciation KeyShow IPA Pronunciation adjective, -er, -est, noun

1. partially or wholly lacking or deprived of the sense of hearing; unable to hear.
The NAD (National Association of Deaf):

Generally, the term “deaf” refers to those who are unable to hear well enough to rely on their hearing and use it as a means of processing information.

The CAD (Canadian Association of Deaf):

The Canadian Association of the Deaf recognizes a person to be medically/audiologically deaf when that person has little or no functional hearing and depends upon visual rather than auditory communication. “Visual means of communication” include Sign language, lipreading, speech reading, and reading and writing. . .

Be sure to read both the CAD and NAD definitions carefully.  Both go into great depth citing multiple sources.


Kim 🙂


  1. Great post, Kim! Fascinating question it stirs up for me – am I deaf? With my loss I guess it depends on when you ask. I’m so variable from day to day in terms of my speech recognition – my audi looked me straight in the eye and asked “Are you going to be my toughest case?” That day I tested over 80% SR, but I had to tell her it wasn’t my “worst” day, which is when I drop to just about zero (from my perspective anyway).

    What I tell people is “I really can’t hear very well…” – so I guess I still don’t relate to “deaf”. I don’t sign or lipread (consciously anyway), nor do I have any technical “enhancements” yet (soon, I’ll be fitted for 2 HAs).

    I wonder if when I start running around with BTEs, I’ll identify myself as deaf, since I’ll then have my “badge” in plain sight?

    Cheers, 🙂
    Paul S (aka: LifeWrecked)

  2. Yes! I’ve just recently started identifying myself as deaf instead of hearing impaired. For me, it was my most recent loss — I find that most people think you can’t hear *anything* if you say you are deaf, and that never used to apply to me. Now it does. However, I’m not part of the cultural Deaf community because I’m late-deafened and don’t use ASL.

    If I tried to identify myself as deaf before (when I could still hear with my hearing aids), then people would get a slightly panicked look on their face…kind of like, “How will I communicate with her?!” Then I’d have to amend it and explain that I can hear with my hearing aids, and read lips.

    Now, I can’t hear at all and I’m relying solely on lip reading. I have no qualms about telling someone I’m deaf. When/if I get a CI, I will still identify myself as a deaf person because the CI won’t change the amount of hearing loss I have.

    That’s just my own personal experience, but this is a timely post for me because I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this!

  3. Have to anticipate others…if you say “hearing is really bad” or “hard of hearing” or anything that suggests you have a bit of hearing left, the other person is likely to feel obligated to shout at you.

    Why they don’t understand that all is needed is to face you and be a bit more clear in speaking? They think, turn up the volume like a radio. Brilliant.

    Some who have limited useful hearing might pause, catch the other’s eye, and only then speak. Often this cues the other to do likewise and look up instead of down while speaking.

  4. I hope I touched a good nerve!

    The period of acceptance took a long time. According to the definition of deaf, I have been deaf for many many years. My definition of deaf was very restricted, maybe it was to keep myself from it.

    I also think we place ourselves in the definition that allows us to accept ourselves. It is so interesting that in the process of getting Cis I found me. Thanks for pointing me out.

  5. Hi Paul,
    Most people lip read a little bit. With the wild fluctuations you have, and if you’re hearing NOTHING at times, lip reading would be much more difficult.

    I have good low tones, which means I pick up vowels and a few consonants– m or b. Though I’m essentially “deaf” to all other speech sounds– s, k, t, th. . .The sounds I DO hear help immensely for lip reading. Between what I hear and what I lip read, many blanks can be filled in.

    If a person uses ASL while speaking to me, I do very, very well, even without any sound. My ASL teacher doesn’t speak, but she signs and mouths words. I understand her almost 100%. Realize she signs slowly and pauses to make sure we’re getting it though. She’s also dramatic and expressive while signing, which helps a LOT. ASL might help you on your “deaf” days. People I work with know a few signs– because I taught them.

  6. Hi Wendy,
    Gosh– it’s so hard to rely completely on lip-reading! You must be very good at it! 🙂 Yeah– I’ve had the same experience as you with using deaf or hard-of-hearing. People misunderstand either way.

    Yup! People with CI’s are still deaf. The CI doesn’t change who you are or what you’ve experienced as a late-deafened person.

  7. Dianrez,
    You’re so right! Shouting doesn’t help at all! In fact, I find it harder to lip read when people shout. Don’t know why that is.

  8. Hi Val,
    Late-deafened people go through a grieving process and identity shift all at the same time. If the hearing loss happens over a long period, you end up in a constant cycle of grief and identity shift. At least that’s been my own personal experience. It’s no wonder some of us have a hard time coming to terms with deafness. 🙂

  9. Linda asked me to post this for her–Thanks Linda:-)

    I don’t know how to respond to the post Kim made yesterday about deaf identification. Here is what I want to post:

    On being deaf: I never had a problem identifying myself as deaf. To me it means an inability to function in the hearing world, without equipment. That’s about it for my definition. sure I have a tiny bit of residual hearing. So what? It doesn’t benefit me. More often than not, it’s like a pesky fly that buzzes in your face every now and then, and then flies away. People can get very ticky with their own personal definitions of deaf, because it’s so hard for late deafened to admit they’ve lost such a vital sense. So they go through all the little ways we have of saying, “I”m not REALLY deaf, I just don’t hear well”. For me, the sooner I admitted to being deaf, and began announcing it to anyone within earshot (pun intended) the more I began to help myself, and to educate others on what it meant not to hear, and how they could still communicate with me, if they cared to do so. People have dropped away over the years; it’s a lot of effort to communicate with me. Is it worth it? I like to think so but maybe some don’t. I have to accept that as a choice they’ve made and have it be ok. I found that it only benefitted ME when everyone that I interacted with, understood that positive interaction with me meant dealing a little differently. To stand tall and proclaim, YES, I am deaf! allows me to then begin to advocate. To educate. To show others that deaf doesn’t equal stupid and that I am worth knowing. That I still have value and that I still have big brain power. That I am still me. Visit the SWC Blog today, at https://ahearingloss.wordpress.com/ and see more input on this topic. Does being deaf define me? No. Is it part of who I am? Yes, absolutely. I was hearing, and now I am not, and I am different, and live my life differently because of it. It was’t the end of my world to lose my hearing (although I may have felt that way, at the time) it was the beginning of a new, and, I like to think, better me. Someone who can now look with eyes of compassion and empathy on people who are differently abled. I like that ‘me’ ok.

    Linda Binns

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