Many People With Hearing Loss Don’t Like the Term “Hearing-Impaired”

Updated on December 15, 2017
Carola Finch profile image

Carola writes extensively on health, social issues, mental illness, disabilities, and other topics. She is a breast cancer survivor.


When a desire for political correctness hit the disability community years ago, hearing people decided that words like “deaf” and “hard of hearing” were harsh and somewhat rude, says the Florida Coordinating Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

Today, the media, general population, and hearing loss organizations have adopted the term "hearing impaired" as a general descriptor of deaf, late-deafened and hard of hearing people. They have decided that this is the politically correct way to describe people with hearing loss. Some individuals use the term to describe their own hearing loss, and do not see anything negative about describing themselves as "hearing impaired."

In the meantime, many people with hearing loss have long embraced terms like “deaf” and “hard of hearing.” “Deaf” and “hard of hearing” are commonly used in organizations of people with hearing loss, and were officially designated as correct terms to describe people with hearing loss by the World Federation of the Deaf in 1991. Organizations such as the National Association of the Deaf confirm that these terms and “people with hearing loss” are widely accepted as accurate descriptions in the deaf and hard of hearing communities.

The term “hearing impaired,” on the other hand, is not acceptable to some people with hearing loss for several reasons.

The term did not come from people with hearing loss

The adoption of the term “hearing impaired” into common usage did not come from within the hearing loss community. It came from hearing people who, although they may have had good intentions, decided they had to meddle. They decided that terms like deaf and hard of hearing were not acceptable and began to use the term “hearing impaired,” believing the term to be less harsh and more politically correct.

Nancy Creighton of the National Association of the Deaf asserts that people with hearing loss have the right to choose the terminology used to describe them. The negative view of terms like “deaf” and “hard of hearing” and society’s acceptance of “hearing impaired” has caused resentment among some people with hearing loss – especially in the deaf community. There are numerous posts by deaf people on YouTube that object to this label (not featured here because they are only in sign language only).

The vagueness of the label

When I read a news story that defines someone as “hearing impaired,” I feel frustrated. Is the person in the story a deaf person who communicates in sign language, a hard-of-hearing individual, or a person who has mild hearing due to hearing aids? One reason that people with hearing loss don’t like being called “hearing impaired” is the vagueness of the term. It really does not say much other than the person has some type of hearing loss.

The website Deaf Link says that there are several distinct groups among people with hearing loss.

Type of Hearing Loss
Capital “D” Deaf
have profound hearing loss, and identify themselves as members of the Deaf Community
Small “d” deaf
do not consider themselves to be a part of the deaf community. These people are often called “oral deaf,” and may be able to lipread and speak
become deaf later in life through illnesses such as measles or meningitis, injuries and other causes, have already acquired English
Hard of hearing
have a mild to moderate hearing loss
have a combination of hearing and vision loss

Signing deaf people identify themselves as "deaf"

Many people with profound hearing loss who communicate in sign language prefer to be identified clearly by terms accepted by the hearing loss community. For this group, the term "deaf" is more than a descriptive word. It designates a cultural group with its own unique norms and language.

For example, deaf people try to get another person's attention by waving their hands, a light touch, turning a light off and on, or stamping their feet. Instead of a doorbell or a phone ringing, a light from a lamp flashes. Some deaf people attended schools for the deaf, and many belong to deaf clubs, and social or sports organizations. Deaf people think of themselves of part of a unique linguistic group rather than as a person with hearing loss. They feel a strong bond with other culturally deaf people. Some deaf people even capitalize "Deaf."

The negative connotations of the word “impaired”

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary online defines the word "impaired" as less than perfect, defective in functioning, or disabled.

Creighton says that deaf and hard of hearing people are sensitive to terms like “hearing impaired,” “deaf-mute,” and “deaf and dumb” because they feel that the term puts them in a negative light as less intelligent or incapable. She calls on hearing people to show respect by not using what she calls “outdated and offensive” terms.

Many deaf people in particular resent the implication that they are broken and need to be fixed. Some deaf people resist medical interventions because they see them as them as a threat to their cultural identity. They are proud to be called Deaf.

Some people in the deaf community even go so far as to refuse to consider the possibility of getting a cochlear implant (CI) for themselves or their children. The CI is a surgically inserted device that simulates hearing.

Many deaf people do chose to get cochlear implants for themselves or their deaf children because they see hearing as beneficial.

The Cochlear Implant Controversy (a hearing person's view)

Concluding thoughts

When we want to identify someone has having a hearing loss, we should be using specific terms that are accepted by the hearing loss and deaf communities rather than vague terms such as "hearing impaired." If our goal is truly to use language that is not offensive to the deaf or some others with hearing loss, let us drop this term from our vocabulary.


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  • Carola Finch profile image

    Carola Finch 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Thanks for your comments.

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    Shane 4 years ago

    For me, I only see it when I look at the DVDs subtitles, "English for the hearing impaired" then "Spanish" and "French".

    Why don't they add "Spanish for the hearing impaired" and "French for the hearing impaired"? What is it that makes English subtitles limited to hearing impaired people only? Why even put that there at all? Even non-deaf people need English subtitles and French and Spanish non-deaf people use English subtitles to learn how to read English.

  • Carola Finch profile image

    Carola Finch 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    This subject can certainly be controversial. The intent of the article was to share how some people feel about the term "hearing impaired," and I think that their views should be heard and respected. I do, however, strongly object to people trying to impose their own views on others, whatever the viewpoint is for or against. Like Arthea sang so elequently, "I want a little respect."

  • Lynda Mas profile image

    Lynda Mas 4 years ago

    Sagebrush3, you are spot on, I couldn't have said it better myself. I don't like the words D/deaf or hard of hearing and prefer hearing impaired (or even hearing) even though I'm L-D. Nobody can dictate what term I can use to describe myself or the community I should belong to. Just because I look like you doesn't mean I can be coerced to be part of your group. In fact the word D/deaf somehow feels like a trap and makes me see myself as different and unable to do what hearing people can.

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    Sagebrush3 5 years ago

    Thank you for correcting the HOH omission in your article. I appreciate your thoughtful response. You mentioned that you did not come across much discussion of the term "hearing impairment" in the HOH community. I am not surprised. It is a perfectly acceptible description for those of us who have some degree of useable residual hearing. We do perceive anything less than full hearing as an "impairment" in our communication. This view is not "against the Deaf". It is just a different world view from a different cultural perspective. Neither side is "right" or "wrong" in this issue.

    I wish there could be more acceptance of diversity within the broadly defined D/d/HOH/LD/DB community. To me, that would mean mutual respect for the uniqueness of each of us. One "side" does not have a right to dictate terms, or perspectives or world view onto any other.

    Too frequently HOH people have experienced harsh criticism by some members of the Deaf community for wearing hearing aids (or CI), for playing musical instruments, for enjoying concerts and for wanting to hear better. Some have been accused of having "serious personal issues" because we do not accept a "Deaf identity". (Since when is it a crime to use whatever residual sensory capacity we have to its fullest?)

    That is like accusing a person who wears glasses of denying their blind identity and telling them they "hate the blind" because they refuse to trade their glasses for opaque black lenses and start using a white cane. Ridiculous right?

    For a moment, imagine the shoe on the other foot. Would any intelligent, self respecting Deaf person accept that kind of critique and demand from a hearing person to "accept a hearing identity"? No of course not! A Deaf person should not accept that treatment from anyone. It is disrespectful, unreasonable and audist. But, some in the Deaf community feel that is just fine to treat a HOH person that way. It causes hard feelings and drives a big wedge between us.

    Back to the term "hearing impaired". It appears that the "invisible" majority (98.6%) of people with hearing loss (HOH/LD) are okay with it. It describes their life experience. The Deaf community already has the perfect, dignified, empowered, full of pride term to describe themselves: Deaf.

  • Carola Finch profile image

    Carola Finch 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Thank you for taking the time to write to me. The omission of HOH from the list was an error that has been corrected. Sorry about that. The scope of the article was to talk about people with hearing loss who object to the term "hearing loss" which just happens to be mostly in the deaf community. A lot of the information came from a Florida government dept. that serves both deaf and hard of hearing people. I did not come across much in the hard of hearing community that commented on the term. I do a lot of reporting on the deaf/HOH and know that theere is a lot of ignorance and discrimination out there. I will carefully consider what you have said and keep it in mind for future articles. I wish you all the best.

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    Sagebrush3 5 years ago

    Interesting article, but the issue needs to be understood in context. There are over 36 million Americans with hearing loss. Of those, only 1.4% are ASL/Deaf Culture people. Historically this tiny minority has tried to dictate and dominate the conditions that the other 98.6% of truly hard of hearing and late deafened people must live by.

    How many organizations claim to serve "The Deaf and Hard of Hearing", but when you look deeper into their mission it is all ASL based? They only talk about access to Interpreting services, VP and have no staff who can communicate with the vast majority of Hard of Hearing people who rely on amplification, speech and aural means of communication? Amazingly, this article even shows us an superb example of "reverse oppression". Hard of Hearing is not even listed as a type of hearing loss!!! Apparently in this D/deaf centric mindframe, HOH do not exist. Once again HOH are routinely dismissed as invisible and irrelevent.

    Too long the Deaf community has been only too happy to count us HOH in to inflate their numbers and importance. But they then turn their back on us, spurning OUR communication needs, and OUR language and OUR cultural preferences. We have to battle for CART in public venues because the Deaf advocates have already brainwashed hearing service providers into thinking that the term: "Deaf and Hard of Hearing" means ASL Deaf.

    The Deaf community does not like the term "hearing impaired". I get that. However, I use that term for my own identity because the phrase "hard of hearing" has been hijacked and distorted that it only means "deaf". I am not Deaf or deaf. When I say: "Hearing Impaired" it gets the hearing service provider's attention so that we can begin talking about what my real needs are: English, CART and FM Loop systems. Meeting the communication needs of 98.6% of us is not irrelevent.

    The Deaf community is in no position to dictate to me or any other Hard of Hearing person what terms we use for OUR OWN identity. You guys usurped our original identity, now it is our turn to claim something else. The Deaf Community doesn't like it? Maybe it is time to do some self reflection on how dishonestly the term "hard of hearing" has been used and abused.