What’s in a Name? Terms for Hearing Loss


Various terminology is used to describe people with disabilities.  Interestingly, the terms we must use has become a sensitive issue.  Some terms are understandably negative.  For example, the terms idiot, moron, and imbecile used to be accepted terms to describe persons with varying degrees of intellectual disabilities. They are very hurtful terms and of course are not used anymore.  The etymology of the term handicap is believed to be related to begging for money, although this has been disputed by others.  Nonetheless, we must avoid this term as it now has negative connotations.  Strange that Joe in Family Guy uses this term to describe himself, but then again, Family Guy is not a place to learn political correctness.

Similarly, we use many terms or names to describe hearing loss.  Some of the commonly used ones include:

  • Hearing loss
  • Deaf-mute
  • Deaf and dumb
  • Hard of Hearing
  • Deaf
  • deaf
  • Hearing impaired
  • Deafened

Hearing loss is a nice generic umbrella term.  It encompasses conductive, sensorineural, or mixed losses.  I failed to find any reference on the internet to this term being negative or derogatory.

“Deaf-mute” and “Deaf and Dumb” both describe the notion that people with significant hearing loss from birth both cannot hear and cannot speak.  These terms should never be used as they are both inaccurate and of course derogatory.  Most kids born with hearing loss, when provided with appropriate auditory-verbal therapy, support and equipment do learn to speak extremely well and go on to achieve high levels of education.  Some families choose sign language for their children, and also can achieve great things.

“Deaf” and “deaf” are actually considered to be somewhat different terms.  Deaf, when used with a capital “D” (also know as “Big D Deaf”), typically describes members of the Deaf Community who use sign language as their method of communication.  The Deaf Community have their own cultural identity, social groups, drama productions etc.  When used with a lower case “d”, the term deaf or deafness is a general term to describe all degrees of hearing loss.  Typically, the image the term “deaf” conjures up is a person who uses sign language, and therefore, the term deaf, whether capitalized or not, version more commonly used to describe people who sign and cannot hear.

Deafened is also a term you see out there, and is one of the terms I use to describe my condition.  Typically it describes someone who has lost the majority of their hearing post-lingually (after the acquisition of spoken language).  However, deafened people may have had their hearing assisted via high powered hearing aids or cochlear implants.  There are organizations such as the Association of Late Deafened Adults in the US. So this term is well accepted.

Hearing impaired or hearing impairment seems innocent enough.  It can be used to describe a condition in which ability to detect certain or all pitches is either partially or completely impaired/

Interestingly, the terms “Hearing impaired” or “Hearing impairment” seem to be the ones that draw the most criticism and controversy today.  I was looking at the National Association of the Deaf website for their perspective on this term.  Here’s the first sentence “Deaf and hard of hearing people have the right to choose what they wish to be called, either as a group or on an individual basis”.  I completely agree with this statement.  Nobody should force a term on any group.  But here is the second statement “Overwhelmingly, deaf and hard of hearing people prefer to be called “deaf” or “hard of hearing.”  Really?  I completely understand and respect the wishes of the Deaf Community to NOT be called hearing impaired.  But I cannot recall anyone asking people with hearing loss who do not sign if they all wanted to be called Hard of Hearing.  When did this happen?

Hard of Hearing officially refers to those persons with hearing loss which is permits the use of the auditory channel for a certain amount of speech/language.  Hard of hearing people typically use hearing aids, cochlear implants, and FM systems.

I do not like the term Hard of Hearing.  In fact, I vehemently detest it. The problem I have with the term “Hard of Hearing” is two-fold. First is the image it conjures up.  And secondly, the proponents of this term to obtain failed to achieve consensus amongst people with hearing loss that this is the correct term that shall be used.

When I think of the term Hard of Hearing, I imagine a old person from the 1930’s with a listening tube stuck in the ear muttering “What’s that sonny?  I am Hard of Hearin’ and ya gotta shout!”.  I find the term archaic, unintelligent, and unflattering.

Hard of Hearing Person

I have asked many people who are not Big D Deaf (that is, the so called “Hard of Hearing”) about their feelings of these words.  Many do not object to either Hearing Impaired or Hard of Hearing.  It is becoming abundantly clear to me that it was the Deaf Community who did not like the term Hearing Impaired.  Again, that is fine.  I completely respect this.  But what I object to is that the term Hard of Hearing was forced upon everyone else.  We could have gone with Deaf and Hearing Impaired rather than Deaf and Hard of Hearing.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not necessarily seeking to resurrect the term “hearing impaired”.  If that term is dead, so be it.  But I will do everything I can to also kill off the term Hard of Hearing, I hate it that much.

I am very glad that in the US, the group “Self Help for Hard of Hearing” (SHHH) changed their name to the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA).  This new name has no negative connotations, and is generic enough to encompass all people with hearing loss.  It is a very welcoming term.  I have joined the HLAA, but not our own Canadian Hard of Hearing Association (CHHA), entirely due to the name.

In the end, the most important thing that all of us people with hearing loss desire is to be seen as people first.  Yes I have a hearing loss and use a cochlear implant, hearing aid, and FM system.  But I also am a father and husband.  I have a graduate degree in Audiology.  I love music, and play bass in a band.  I love to kayak, fish, and hunt.  I am all these things, and I do not wish to be defined solely by one attribute.  So perhaps the term People with Hearing Loss may be the best term of all, as it emphasizes the person first.

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15 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? Terms for Hearing Loss

  1. I remember when, in the 70’s I was told I could no longer refer to myself as “partially deaf” and had to be called “Hearing Impaired.” Recently I was told that was not PC and I had to refer to myself as “Hard of Hearing.” There is a sign for Hard of Hearing but not for hearing impaired. I find it annoying to be told what term is acceptable for me to use regarding my own condition. Outside of the Deaf Community I refer to myself as Hearing Impaired or an individual with a hearing loss. I have a friend who, when folks ask him, refuses to answer, saying he does not feel like labeling himself. He has profound hearing loss and combines powerful aids and lip reading. I’m beginning to agree with him.

    I’m too many things to be defined by just my hearing. I’m a daughter, a sister, a mother, a grandmother, a retired social worker, an attorney, a student of life and so many other things. I also happen to have communication problems due to my hearing. Maybe being a Person with a Hearing Loss is the best option. Thanks for the well thought out insight.

    • I am glad you saw my point. On one hand, I know labels can be quite important. If they are hurtful, we certainly must avoid those. But lets not dwell on them too much, but instead focus on the entire person. Cheers!

  2. When I was a kid, I had a friend who, though he had perfect hearing, couldn’t seem to catch that he was always calling me death, instead of deaf.

    Randy: “This is my friend, Stephen. He is death.”
    Me: “Well, I’m not totally dead, just partially.”

    • What a bugger! Sadly some kids are mean. Even though I was occasionally picked on, I was also a passive bystander to some other kids being picked on but did not step in to help.I regret that, but I also forgive anyone who picked on me because I guess I also committed a similar transgression as a bystander.

      • The funny thing was, he REALLY didn’t get it. He wasn’t trying to be mean, he just confused the words all the time.

        I never had too many bullying situations as a kid. No more than anyone else. There were times it was annoying, but most people realized I’d accepted hearing loss as part of life.

  3. Thanks Peter! You have brought clarity to a complex issue. After much debate, our program at TVDSB changed its title to Hearing Resource – in an attempt to promote a positive attitude towards our students who need additional supports in order to hear information in classroom settings. However, we still have a long way to go in challenging the attitudes of others regarding “labels” that are applied to children/adults that have different hearing thresholds.
    With your permission, I would love to share your article with staff and students at Elborn

  4. I, on the other hand, like the term “hard of hearing”. I was born this way. Five generations of my family were born this way. To date, I haven’t had a “hearing loss” or loss of hearing. This is my normal. Just as the culturally Deaf don’t like the term hearing impaired, and just like you don’t like the term hard of hearing, I don’t like the term “hearing loss”. Do you have to like the term “hard of hearing”? Of course not. We all have a right to self-identify. Just remember though, that in your zeal to eradicate the “hard of hearing” term from everyone’s vocabulary that we all have a right to self-identify, and not all of us have a hearing loss. The last time I looked, I think it was 3% of children born are born this way as well. Again – they (and you and I) have a right to self-identify. PS – hi, Peter! (waving madly)

    • Thanks Cathy! I think it is good to have a discussion on this issue, because frankly I don’t think us folks who are not culturally deaf have ever discussed it. I could be alone on my views, or there could be others who agree with me (or you). Let’s see if there is some consensus that can be reached. Thanks again for sharing your views!

  5. I don’t have any feelings against any of these terms. I was born hard of hearing, deaf in my left ear and limited hearing in my right ear. My right ear’s hearing has slowly worsened over time, and has also been stricken with sudden onset hearing loss. I’ve been totally deaf during four periods of my life, and and currently deaf. I am learning to hear with a cochlear implant, but right now the sounds are still mostly noise.

    I am hard of hearing.
    I am hearing impaired.
    I suffer hearing loss.
    I have been deafened.
    I am deaf.

  6. I don’t like any of the terms, but do need to somehow “help” those who have perfect hearing comprehend my inability to enjoy life the way they do. Not that I don’t enjoy life, just not the way they do with easy conversations in noisy environs, chatting across the room and around corners or while the kids are making noise, hearing birds and all the wonderful nuances in music. BUT then, I get to turn off my aids at night and sleep through everything.

    Most terms seem to label me as “less than” and get me treated as if I were a tad stupid – at least with some folks who I then tend to avoid. OR bring me loud voices, unwarranted pity type sympathy…

    I’d say “hearing impaired” is similar to my being “visually impaired” and both just mean I adjust to life instead of taking all of life for granted.

    Good discussion, good food for thought / judy

  7. This discussion has come to light in our neck of the woods as of recently. The primary focus being that technology has redefined our ability to communicate which, in turn, could redefine one’s hearing loss or rather, how to define it. It is more today about how one chooses to communicate, verbal or sign language. In addition, there are those who remain confused in the hearing loss world as to what their own classification, as it were, should be! There are those in our group born hearing who later became hard of hearing (the term they use) and today are deafened….but they still prefer hard of hearing or hearing loss over the word deaf…but they are indeed what would be considered deaf based on their audiogram. They are not, however, part of the Deaf world and do not know sign language. I myself was born hearing, gradually developed a hearing loss and today would be defined as deaf or deafened if it were not for the use of hearing aids and fm stations. So again,it seems to be more about how you opt to listen and communicate. Are you oral or sign language. Oral is not a word of choice for me…but I understand the concept. I have always use the term hard of hearing but more often I just say, “I wear hearing aids…bear with me if I do not respond immediately or have difficulty understanding you”. But I communicate on the phone, in person, by way of messaging, email and skype and actively participate in a hearing world with various organizations and while raising a family. I have a hearing dog and love educating others as to how to interact with anyone with a hearing loss…but I do indeed remain at a loss as to what term would be my preference and do not think we, as people, need to place too much emphasis on the terms used but rather what we do to help educate others about hearing loss and how wonderful it is…the only person that can make it a bad thing, is ourselves. The hearing people will need to be educated, regardless of the term used, as to how to communicate with anyone who needs a little assistance in understanding what is being said.

    • Thanks for the comments Dawn. Perhaps the old terms and classifications don’t work anymore due to the changes in technology. Maybe just a simple “I have a hearing loss” is the best way to go. More importantly, we should not let our hearing status completely define our entire person.

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