A Hearing Loss & Late Deafened Blog

How Do You Define deaf?

In Deafness, Hard of hearing culture, Hearing Loss, late deafened on June 9, 2011 at 4:28 am

I just came across this post last week that asks about the definition of deaf. You can find more replies here http://alt.newsgroups.archived.at/support.hearing-loss/201105/11051917641.html

 “Greetings – I just had to complete an on-line training course in “Diversity”. There was a question that asked what preparations should be made for an interview with a person known to be deaf. The answer included having a hearing loop ready. My response was that a hearing loop would/could assist someone like me with a hearing impairment, with suitable aids, but not someone who was deaf, because my understanding of the word deaf is that it means total hearing loss – the same as “blind” means total loss of sight as opposed to a visual impairment. I’d be interested to see responses about how others describe themselves – i.e. deaf or hearing impaired.”

I don’t mean to pick on this person. If anything, I see both the question and answer as yet another example of the pervasiveness of confusion over the definitions of the words deaf, Deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing-impaired. Why the heck do the deaf have so many labels? It’s interesting.  There seems to be little confusion over blindness. I have met legally blind people who had their driver’s licenses. OK– yes that does seem strange, but it’s true.  Some can read large print books, and use ADA accessible computers with large lettering.  We still consider them blind. It doesn’t always mean living in total darkness.

But for some reason, when it comes to being deaf many people believe a person has to be completely without sound to qualify as ‘deaf.’ And yet, few deaf people hear absolutely nothing.

Here is the dictionary meaning of deaf from the Cambridge on-line dictionary.

deaf adjective /def/ Definition • unable to hear, either completely or partly He’s been totally/partially deaf since birth.

You can take your pick of any English language dictionary. I have also looked at the Oxford, Merriam-Webster, Longman Contemporary, and MacMillan on-line dictionaries. The meaning doesn’t change from one to the next.  The word ‘deaf’ can be applied to people who cannot hear well, or those who cannot hear at all.

Many partially deaf people are reluctant to use the word ‘deaf,’ because there are other options that also mean partially deaf.  I guess that’s why it’s so confouding to figure out what to call ourselves– Am I hard of hearing?  Am I hearing impaired?  Am I deaf? If you need any kind of accommodation I would answer yes to all of the above.

To complicate matters further, there is the capitalized Deaf word, not found in the English dictionary, which is the ASL cultural designation of people who use sign language.   A  person can be quite deaf and still be able to speak clearly, especially if they became deaf later in life.   This person may be unable to hear a thing, but choose to lip read and speak in a one-on-one interview in a quiet looped room.  Likewise, someone with only a moderate hearing loss who grows up signing in a family with Deaf parents and siblings may choose to identify as a Deaf person, even though he or she might hear really well with hearing aids.  In other words, a deaf person may be Deaf or deaf.  These are just two examples of people who don’t fit neatly into a box, but I can think of many more.

For this reason my answer to the above question on how to prepare a room for an interview with a deaf person would be to simply ask what, if any, accommodations will be necessary when you set up the appointment.  Let’s assume the choices might be 1. ASL or Oral interpreter. 2. Looped room 3. CART 4. Nothing.

Because the official definition of ‘deaf’ encompasses partial to complete hearing loss, it would be wrong to assume anything about another deaf person, or that I might be able to guess what accommodations might be needed without asking.

  1. Yes, ask the person what accommodations will be necessary. Don’t assume. An ASL interpreter wouldn’t help me. CART would.

  2. I agree. Was just having a discussion about use of the term “hearing impaired”. I object to the negative implication. The other person said “hearing impaired” is a legal term. I’m not too sure about that. I would like to see the change to d/Deaf and hard of hearing. My friend said people are afraid of the word ‘deaf’.

    • I haven’t liked “hearing-impaired” for a long time either. It’s supposed to be all encompassing, but I think ‘deaf’ does the job just fine! I agree many people are afraid of the ‘d’ word. I believe if more hard of hearing people claimed they were deaf instead of skirting around it with the hard of hearing label, it would become easier and easier for others to use it.

      • It’s not that I’m afraid to use the “d” word but I am not deaf. However, hearing people tend to understand or think they understand the meaning of deaf vs. the meaning of hearing loss. We still have to explain our mode of communication if we say deaf. I prefer captioning and oral communication over signing. But as soon as we say deaf, the hearing population starts finger spelling…lol and thinking their one semester of sign gives them the right to say they are fluent.

      • I have rarely had anyone start fingerspelling when I said the word deaf. lol It might be where you are and what you do for a living. I usually use the qualifiers “partially, almost, practically, nearly” deaf when I say it and then explain that I lip read, which maybe helps. I don’t know. I think no matter what words you use you are going to have to explain something about what you need to communicate. I find if I tell people I’m hard of hearing they assume I can hear pretty well unless I explain I lip read. Either way I have to explain that.

  3. Wonderful post–I totally agree. It’s frustrating that we have to qualify what we mean when we say we’re deaf. It used to be understood that that only meant the person had trouble hearing, not that they couldn’t hear ANYTHING.

    • Looking at the definitions, I’m not sure it is expected that we qualify what we mean, but I think it has become so much more confusing in the past decade or so because of the addition of the captial Deaf word, which isn’t in the English dictionary. Still– many people are using it, and when you say Deaf or deaf they are pronounced the same. But they mean two entirely different things. So I think that’s why a qualifier helps.

  4. Thanks for a great, informative, well thought out article. I’ve also been very confused about using the right terminology or references to deaf. I see it is really a matter of personal preference. Thanks for clearing this confusion up for me.

  5. Reblogged this on Musings of a Momma and commented:

    A very interesting read…makes you think of all the labels out there. What to use and when and why to use them.

  6. I’ve explained to people several times that noise renders me deaf. I hear lots of noise but can make no sense of it so deafness is not just silence.

  7. I’ve had moderate hearing loss all my life. I only recently got hearing aids at the age of 50. It’s difficult for me to to understand when people speak and a huge effort to feel connected to the world, yet most people don’t believe me when I tell them I am partially deaf. What do deaf people LOOK like, anyway, I’d like to ask them. But I do use the term partially deaf, not impaired, not hard of hearing (sounds too “old person”).

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