Back To Blog

Who am I? How the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Identify Themselves

Identity pictureHearing loss and how people identify or “label” themselves is a very personal thing.  The Deaf and hard of hearing community is a diverse one with variations in the cause and degree of hearing loss. Additional factors that come into play are age of onset, educational background, communication methods and how the person feels they fit into the Deaf and hard of hearing communities.

A term that is seen as all inclusive by some is “people with a hearing loss” BUT some people that are born deaf or hard of hearing do not think of themselves as having lost their hearing. The three most common terms accepted by the Deaf and hard of hearing communities are, deaf, Deaf and hard of hearing (HOH).

What is the difference in Deaf and deaf? According to Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, in Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture (1988):

We use the lowercase deaf when referring to the audiological condition of not hearing, and the uppercase Deaf when referring to a particular group of deaf people who share a language – American Sign Language (ASL) – and a culture. The members of this group have inherited their sign language, use it as a primary means of communication among themselves, and hold a set of beliefs about themselves and their connection to the larger society. We distinguish them from, for example, those who find themselves losing their hearing because of illness, trauma or age; although these people share the condition of not hearing, they do not have access to the knowledge, beliefs, and practices that make up the culture of Deaf people.

Hard of hearing (HOH) can mean a person with a mild to moderate hearing loss.  This person can sometimes find themselves walking that fine line between the hearing and the deaf world, while some can comfortably see themselves as a member of both. According to Deaf Life, “For Hearing People Only” (October 1997): they may have a more difficult time establishing a satisfying cultural/social identity.

Labels not culturally acceptable

Deaf and Dumb: This very offensive term was first used by Greek Philosopher Aristotle because he thought that deaf people were incapable of being taught, of learning and of reasoned thinking. In later years the word “dumb” came to mean “silent”.  The deaf and Hard of hearing communities find this term to be very offensive for two important reasons. One, deaf and hard of hearing people are not in any way “silent”. Using one’s voice is not the only way to communicate. Deaf and hard of hearing people use sign language, vocalizations, lip reading and so on to communicate. Two, “dumb” also takes on a second meaning: stupid. Some people think that if you cannot use your voice to communicate that you don’t have anything to contribute as far as intellect. Deaf and hard of hearing people have proven they have much to contribute to society.

Deaf-Mute: Another offensive term from the 18th to 19th century, “mute” meaning silent and without voice is a term that is technically inaccurate. Deaf and hard of hearing individuals use various methods of communication other than or in addition to using their voices, so they are not truly mute.

Hearing-impaired: This term was once seen as acceptable and PC (politically correct). To call someone deaf or blind outright was considered rude and impolite. But for many people the words “deaf” or ”hard of hearing” are not negative words but self identifying. The term hearing-impaired is viewed as a negative term because the word focuses on what people can’t do. It establishes the standard as “hearing” and anything different as “impaired” or substandard.

A very important thing to remember is that we all want to be treated with respect and dignity. In a world where things change so quickly a safe rule to live by is if you’re not sure than ask the individual how they identify themselves.


Learn how quality language services impact executive-level priorities in healthcare  Download Whitepaper