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