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Terminology in the Deaf Community

May 16, 2021

Hard of Hearing or Deaf? Proper Terminology for Employers

As kids, we’re told to let hurtful comments run off our backs. Today, the phrase “Haters gonna hate” is prominent on social media. Take this old childhood rhyme you surely heard on the playground:

Sticks and stones may break my bones,

But names shall never hurt me.

Sure, you can’t let every comment affect your confidence and how you carry yourself, but words can be hurtful. This is no different to people with disabilities. The way we address people matters.

It can be difficult to know the best way to address a person with a disability, or how to acknowledge their disability. However, it is important that the terms used accurately portray diversity in the community experiencing hearing loss.

The best way to know? Just ASK! Yes, ask EACH person or the group you are or will be in contact with. This is because further dialogue and interactions are needed to explore diversity even within groups.

Below, we have given general descriptions that demonstrate that the cookie-cutter phrase “hearing impaired”, originally a medical term, is no longer appropriate to describe this diverse community.

Proper terminology for the deaf or hard of hearing community

deaf (yes small d) – a person with hearing loss. They can speak, can or may lipread; few may even learn sign language. They may have a cochlear implant or other technology that is available. They live primarily in the ‘hearing world’.

deafened (again small d) – a person who experiences abrupt hearing loss (usually) or has gradual loss. Usually, they can keep on speaking out of habit but may no longer be able to monitor their speech volume. They tend to change their lifestyle to accommodate their new reality. Some have moved on to the Deaf group, most stay in the ‘hearing world.’

Hard of Hearing – a person with hearing loss whose hearing can be enhanced with technology including hearing aids and other technology. Some members are comfortable going between the two worlds – hearing and Deaf. Sometimes,members of this group transition to the Deaf community. This may be the result of increased hearing loss later in life and growing frustration with the ‘hearing world’ who continually fail to include them.

Deaf (capital D) – a person who primarily uses sign language even if it is a second language acquired.  They take in all data using visual and tactile means. Deaf people usually are not interested in hearing ‘restoration’ but instead progress into a visual lifestyle with sign language. This very rich and vibrant reality makes Deaf people hard pressed to identify with the disability group,instead gravitate toward cultural identity.  

This Deaf group includes a wide variety of people. Their experiences range  in age of loss (at birth, early onset, late onset), education (residential, day-program, mainstreamed, integrated without support), communication methodology (Sign Language, English signed systems, audio-verbal), family dynamics (full support, unawareness, neglect, abusive). The commonality of all these factors makes the group cohesive. The mindset is usually collective not individual, like safety in numbers.

Deaf-Blind –  Often the most forgotten group, but lately they are becoming more visible. Vision loss can be congenital (at birth) or acquired over time. They use DeafBlind alphabet and tactile signing. ProTactile is gaining popularity, incorporating tactile signing and environmental information to better connect DeafBlind individuals with the environment and other people.

Sign Language – Sign language is not universal. Each country or region has their own. For example, here in North America American Sign Language is commonly used, with many, many dialects. In Canada alone, we have ASL (Western, Central, East), LSQ (French), Indigenous original sign languages/ASL dialects and Maritimes Sign Language.

Please do not assume that these Deaf Sign Languages regardless of country origin is based on the English/majority languages where Deaf people live. They are visually based and kinetically fluid whereas English and other spoken languages are based on audio and verbal fluidity. Total opposites at many levels.

Lipreading (speechreading) – a visual way of obtaining auditory data that is not very efficient.  Approximately 30% of English language is visible on the face. Many words appear  similar and can throw lipreaders off context of the spoken dialogue. It’s also an unfair burden to expect people from this community to know lipreading, who have to contend with rude people who  do not understand that speech does not dictate hearing ability or vice versa.

Above, we mentioned the terms ‘hearing world’ and ‘Deaf world’. Deaf people use ‘hearing’ as a noun to refer to people who are not Deaf.  It is the hearing world that is largely inaccessible so it’s ‘other-worldly’ while Deaf people thrive in an environment that poses no barriers and is entirely normalized. The culture within the Deaf community has made it more like an ethnic group rather than a disability group. With Deaf literature, social media, visual-based applications/technology, cliché groups, history, and the mindset make it a subculture of its own.

All of these terms can be daunting, and you may feel nervous to make a mistake. However, it is up to each individual to identify themselves, as you won’t know their background and journey without conversation. This is why it’s best to just ask them how to best communicate. Prior discussion and preparation are key to successful interactions.

Lori Cooper

Bilingual/bicultural (English/American Sign Language and Deaf/hearing); passionate about bridging gaps between Deaf and hearing worlds; uses real life experience to facilitate vital learning opportunities; funny; uses innovative/grass-roots approaches in sensitivity training; and is comfortable and open with diversity