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

Carola has worked for agencies serving the hearing loss community for many years. She is also a freelance writer.

A desire for political correctness hit the disability community years ago, and its effects influenced people with hearing loss deaf advocates, organizations, and government agencies. Florida Health has observed that hearing people decided that words like “deaf” and “hard of hearing” were harsh and somewhat rude.

Today, the media and the general population 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 hard of hearing and people with hearing loss. These descriptors are commonly used in deaf organizations 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 acceptable as accurate descriptions in the deaf and hard of hearing communities.

Labels to Describe Hearing Loss

There are several distinct groups among people with hearing loss.

Severe Hearing Loss

  • Capital “D” Deaf: This group has profound hearing loss and identify themselves as members of the Deaf Community with a distinct language (sign) and culture.
  • Small “d” deaf: This group may or may not consider themselves to be a part of the deaf community.
  • Oral deaf: This group may be able to lipread and speak, and may not identify themselves as culturally deaf.

Mild to Moderate Hearing Loss

  • Hard of hearing: They have a mild to moderate hearing loss and may use hearing aids or other assistive listening devices.
  • Late-deafened: They become deaf later in life through illnesses such as measles or meningitis, injuries, and other causes, have already acquired speech.

Hearing and Vision Loss

  • The term deafblind is often used to describe a combination of hearing and vision loss.

Why "Hearing Impaired" is Not an Acceptable Term

The term hearing impaired is not considered 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 or offensive, and began to use the term hearing impaired. They believed the term to be less harsh and more politically correct.

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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. They are not featured here because they are only in sign language.

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 with hearing aids who has mild hearing loss? Some people with hearing loss do not like being called hearing impaired because the term is vague. It really does not say much other than the person had some type of hearing loss.

Signing Deaf People Identify Themselves as "Deaf" or "deaf"

Many people with profound hearing loss who communicate in sign language prefer to be identified as deaf. For this group, the term deaf is more than a descriptive word. It designates a cultural group with its own unique norms and language. They have developed unique ways to navigate the hearing world.

For example, deaf people try to get other people'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 to alert them.

Some deaf people attended schools for the deaf, and some belong to deaf clubs, and sports organizations. Deaf people think of themselves as part of a unique linguistic group rather than as people with hearing loss. They feel a strong bond with other culturally deaf people. Some deaf people even capitalize "Deaf."

The Word “Impaired” Has a Negative Meaning

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

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

Some people in the deaf community 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, however, do choose to get cochlear implants for themselves or their deaf children because they see hearing as beneficial.

Concluding Thoughts

When we want to identify someone's hearing loss, we should be using specific terms 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 others with hearing loss, let us drop the term "hearing impaired" from our vocabulary.


Deaf? Hard of Hearing? Hearing Impaired? Be Careful What You Call Us, AARP, Katherine Bouton
Deafness Terminology & Myths, Florida Health
Community and Culture - Frequently Asked Questions, National Association of the Deaf
Learning About Deaf Culture and Community, Deaf Linx

© 2013 Carola Finch

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