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Let's End Deaf & Dumb

Updated: Jul 15, 2020

CN; slurs, discussion of language, audism, terminology

What terminology should I use?

Often, when I tell someone either in person or online that I am deaf, some of the most common things I am asked are “I don’t want to offend anyone, but I don’t know what terminology I should use!” and “I see people often write d/Deaf – what’s the difference?”

So, here is a breakdown of some of the most common outdated and currently used terminology in the Deaf community - and what terminology the community wants you to use and what deserves to go and stay in the Bad Place [link]

Out of date

  • Hearing-impaired = it suggests to hearing people that a Deaf person still has some hearing. The word ‘impaired’ makes the Deaf & hard of hearing community uncomfortable because the dictionary definition of impaired is "being in a less than perfect or whole condition: as disabled or functionally defective”. Contrary to the definition, Deaf people are both whole and unable to hear. Deaf people often do not consider themselves as impaired by their deafness, but by society’s attitude and lack of accessibility for Deaf people. Similarly, some people believe that the term “people with hearing loss” is inclusive and efficient. However, many people who were born Deaf or hard of hearing do not consider themselves as having lost their hearing.

  • Deaf and dumb = originally this came about from Aristotle as he felt that Deaf people were incapable of being taught education or understanding reasoned thinking. This then developed later on to “dumb” meaning “silent”, and this still exists today; because this is how hearing people see Deaf people. This term is highly offensive to Deaf and hard of hearing people for a number of reasons. We are by no means “silent” at all - we use sign language, lip-reading, vocalisations, among others to communicate. “Dumb” also is taken to mean stupid [link]. Deaf and hard of hearing people have experienced on many occasions people who believe the ideology that if you cannot use your voice well, that you aren’t intelligent. This is incorrect, ill-informed, and disrespectful. Deaf and hard of hearing people have repeatedly proven that we have much to contribute to society, such as the rise of #DeafTalent.

  • Deaf-mute = similar to “Deaf and dumb”, hearing people assume that all Deaf or hard of hearing people can’t speak and therefore cannot communicate at all. Firstly, there are many hard of hearing and Deaf people who do speak. Secondly, hearing and speaking is only one method of communication, there are many others, including pen & paper or a phone app, lip-reading/lip-speaking and sign language – a beautiful language with its own culture.

Currently used

  • hard of hearing = a widely-accepted term to describe someone with mild-to-moderate hearing loss. However, it is on occasion used by Deaf people who don’t have/want any cultural affiliation with the Deaf community. A person who is hard of hearing often does not use sign language as their preferred language. This may be due to them never having the opportunity to learn a sign language, preferring not to or simply that they don’t come into contexts to use it – e.g. none of their friends or family sign.

  • Deaf gain = this term was coined in opposition to “hearing loss” in order to encompass the many ways in which both d/Deaf and hard of hearing people, as well as society, benefit from the existence of d/Deaf and hard of hearing people as well as sign language. Deaf Gain asks the questions: is the world better off with d/Deaf people and their signed languages?; is the status of deafness worth preserving?; and what would society lose if it were to eradicate hearing loss?

  • Deaf-blind = exactly as it sounds, this describes a person who is d/Deaf or hard of hearing and also blind or with some degree of vision loss.

  • Deaf = an inclusive term to include all of the Deaf community - Deaf refers to people who have little to no hearing and includes but those who are and are not culturally Deaf (take pride in their Deaf identity and are actively engaged with the Deaf community, going to Deaf events and use sign language as their first language). Some Deaf people are born Deaf, while others become Deaf later in life.

Currently debated

While it is still being debated, generally the Deaf community is trying to move away from the d/Deaf definition, as this provides segregation.

  • deaf =The "lowercase d" deaf by some is thought to refer to exclusively the medical condition of having hearing loss. People who identify as 'deaf' often don't have a strong connection to the Deaf community. While they may use some sign language, they usually prefer to communicate orally.

  • Deaf = the “uppercase D” Deaf by some is thought to refer to exclusively people who identify as culturally Deaf, take pride in their Deaf identity and are actively engaged with the Deaf community. They are often, but not always, born Deaf and prefer to use sign language, go to Deaf events, as well as attending schools and programs for the Deaf where they have been able to immerse themselves in Deaf culture.

The important takeaway message is that the Deaf community is diverse, and as such the level of hearing, the age a person becomes Deaf or Hard of Hearing, and their communication methods and cultural identity will differ between each person. How a Deaf or hard of hearing person will identify is deeply personal and is impacted by many things such as when and if they consider themselves part of the Deaf community. As such, if someone wants you to refer to them as Deaf, that is how you should refer to them – if they prefer hard of hearing, use that. Be sure that you don’t assume the term someone else will use based on previous interactions. If you don’t know or are unsure, just ask!

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