Deaf vs. Hearing Loss vs. Hearing Impaired vs. Hard of Hearing

Reading this Letter to the Editor in regard to this story triggered my thinking about the terms related to deafness. But first, a comment on the story. While the letter writer is right that the statement could’ve been easily omitted, Dave Crosby was being honest about his feelings about his own deafness. It would be unbearable for him to become deaf. I try to show that there are all kinds of deafness and how we feel about it.
The debate on which terms to use: deaf, hearing loss, and so on, has been around as long as deafness. Political correctness aside (these terms should all be fine anyway), each one conveys different connotations. The one that may not be politically correct is “hearing impaired” because some see “impaired” as implying a disability. When I say “hearing impaired,” it’s out of laziness because “hard of hearing” takes more effort to say. Same amount of syllables, but still I find it easier to say “hearing impaired.”


When I leave a message for someone providing the option of emailing me or calling me through the relay service. I briefly explain why I use the relay service. A person who has never received a call through the relay service might be confused to get a message, “Call me at this number. Be aware this is a relay service.”
So I say, “I’m hearing impaired, so when I make phone calls — it’s through a relay service. Some people find it cool and some find it tedious. Here are a few ways we can touch base: phone with relay service, email, and instant messenger.”
Notice I didn’t say, “I’m deaf” or “hard of hearing.” Medically, I’m profoundly deaf. I’ve already explained why I don’t use “hard of hearing” very often. I go back and forth between “deaf” and “hearing impaired.” I believe that subconsciously I use “hearing impaired” more often due to the connotations related to the two terms. Before I explain, know that I don’t view myself as weak, disabled, or anything of that because I was born without hearing. What I am about to say might upset a few folks, but I’m telling it like it is.
Over the years, I’ve gotten the impression that “deaf” conveys a greater disability than “hearing impaired.” There. I said it. It’s like those who wear glasses aren’t seen as disabled like those who can’t see at all. “Hearing impaired” is viewed as someone who has some hearing loss, but otherwise speaks normally and hears normally with help from a hearing aid. Wrong, I know.
As I leave messages for someone to contact me, I find I use “hearing impaired” because I don’t want to start our conversation with prejudice (audism) or they don’t call me back because they figure I’m not worth their time.
More on audism from About.com and an earlier Bionic Ear posting with comments on the topic.

5 comments

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  1. Wikipedia has an article on deaf vs. hearing impaired

  2. I have to admit that even though I would prefer to say “hard of hearing,” I would still occasionally use hearing-impaired because I once had an experience where a person didn’t know what “hard of hearing” meant. I was stunned. Hearing-impaired, for all that Deaf people can say about it, is simply a word that hearing people understand the most, and think is the least offensive next to “deaf.”
    Since some people don’t know what’s “hard of hearing” is, I try to compromise by using “hearing impairment” as if acknowledging that it is something I have–a part of me, but I will not be defined by the adjective. I’m not sure that’s even a compromise.
    “Hard of hearing” is a weird term, isn’t it? It seems to imply that the varying degree of hearing is something between a brick and a pillow.

    • Karl on October 18, 2006 at 11:42 pm
    • Reply

    Hi Jamie,
    I really enjoy these kinds of discussions about the meaning of language. It is my love of languages that led me to study ASL and intersted in deafness issues.
    For instance, either “politically correct” or “hearing impaired” or both have a different meaning for you than they do for me. I would have thought it obvious that “hearing impaired” is an invention of political correctness. I’ve heard “deaf” and “hard of hearing” all my life, but “hearing impaired” gained usage along with “African-American”, “Mail Carrier”, “Disabled”, and “Latino”. All fine words, but clearly products of political correctness — when it had a positive meaning.
    At the time, we were trying to figure out how to bridge differences without labels or stereotypes. We needed those terms because they helped us to understand we’re all the same. It must have served it’s purpose because the trend now seems to be a celebration and pride in what makes us different and you’ll see certain demographics choosing terms for themselves to highlight that difference. That’s what “deaf” represents to me. Having moved past stereotypes, now moving past political correctness — people aren’t the same. We’re equal, but we’re different.

    • Judy on March 6, 2009 at 6:51 pm
    • Reply

    Hello,
    Does anyone know where I can buy cards (like business card size) that say “Hearing Impaired” I cannot communicate with you. People always start conversations with me, and I don’t want to be rude, but sometimes I have no idea what they said, so I smile and nod like an idiot. Plus, it’s annoying. Thanks. Anyone?

  3. Some states offer these cards for free. I couldn’t find a store online that sells them.
    You might also consider printing your own. Just buy business card stock at an office supply store. These show you how to set up a template.

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