What is the difference between a person who is deaf or hard of hearing?
Deaf communities are diverse with people identifying as Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, Hard of Hearing, and Late-Deafened. There are variations in how a person becomes deaf, level of hearing, age of onset, educational background, communication methods, and cultural identity. How people identify themselves is personal and may reflect identification with the deaf communities, 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 became deaf later in life. Other people identify themselves as DeafBlind which usually indicates that they are deaf and also have some degree of vision loss. Over the years, the most commonly accepted terms have come to be Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, Hard of Hearing, and Late-Deafened.
Individuals can choose an audiological or cultural perspective. It’s all about choices, comfort level, mode of communication, and acceptance. Whatever the decision, the NAD welcomes all Deaf, deaf, hard of hearing, late-deafened, and DeafBlind Americans, and the advocacy work that the NAD does is available to and intended to benefit everyone.
What is wrong with the use of these terms “deaf-mute,” “deaf and dumb,” or “hearing-impaired”?
Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, Hard of Hearing, and Late-Deafened people have the right to choose how they wish to be identified, either as a group or on an individual basis. However, there have been alternative terms used which 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, 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 [their] 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 for a number of reasons.
- 1. Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, Hard of Hearing, and Late-Deafened 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.
- 2. “dumb” also has a second meaning: stupid. Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, Hard of Hearing, and Late-Deafened people have encountered plenty of people who subscribe to the philosophy that if you cannot use your voice well, you are probably not smart, and have nothing going for you. Obviously, this is incorrect, ill-informed, and false. Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, Hard of Hearing, and Late-Deafened 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, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, Hard of Hearing, and Late-Deafened 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, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, Hard of Hearing, and Late-Deafened 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 is no longer accepted by most in the community but 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.”
When in doubt, ask the individual how they identify themselves.