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.

Advertisements