September 22, 2011
Deaf vs Hearing Impaired
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Deaf vs. Hearing Impaired

These two terms have been in conflict with one another for as long as I can remember. Do you call someone deaf or is he or she hearing impaired? The Merriam-Webster dictionary list Deaf as the following.

1: lacking or deficient in the sense of hearing
2: unwilling to hear or listen: not to be persuaded <was overwrought and deaf to reason>

The term hearing impaired was not found but the work impaired was.

Being in a less than perfect or whole condition: as
          A: disabled or functionally defective often used in combination <hearing-impaired>
          B: intoxicated by alcohol or narcotics <driving while impaired>

In impaired definition A the word defective is used, deaf people do not find themselves to be defective, they just cannot hear. In the book For Hearing People Only* (2003) authors Matthew S. More & Linda Levitan quote a letter from Deaf Life Magazine written by Lillian Hosauer where she states,

“At recent meetings of the International Federation of the Hard of Hearing, World Federation of the Deaf, National Association of the Deaf, and Pennsylvania Society of the Advancement of the Deaf, it was agreed the term “hearing-impaired’ was no longer an acceptable term, instead future references would be to deaf/hard of hearing.”

Linda Greeno, MSW and Deaf Case Manager, states “deaf and hearing impaired mean the same thing, it is a medical term to use “hearing impaired” and some medical professionals feel they need to fix the hearing impaired. Deaf is a simple word to describe the range of deaf people.”

In an attempt to be politically correct non-deaf people use the term hearing impaired in order not to offend. Antiquated terms like deaf and dumb or deaf mute are viewed as negative because of the words ‘dumb’ and ‘mute’; through association the word deaf is often considered negative as well thus people avoid using it altogether to not offend.

Indiana Certified interpreter Rachelle Clark believes “we look at what our norms are and then label the other persons lack as a deficit or impairment hence if I am able to hear and you are not, I may label you hearing impaired”. It is the hope that we not focus on or emphasize the differences but focus on the person. Most persons preferred to be called just that…deaf. From American Heritage Dictionary, 1992:

Deaf adj.

1. Partially or completely lacking in the sense of hearing
2. Deaf. Of or relating to the Deaf or their culture

Deaf n.

1. Deaf people considered as a group
2. Deaf. The community of deaf people who use American Sign language as a primary means of communication

“Deaf people can do anything…except hear.” Dr. I King Jordan, first deaf president of Gallaudet University, 1988, quoting Fred Schreiber (1972).

Don’t be afraid to say deaf.  It is a four letter word that is okay and accepted.


Anthony Nelson, Director of Easter Seals Crossroads Deaf Community Services, has been working in the field of Deafness and Interpreting for thirteen years. Anthony is a nationally certified with the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf and has a M.A. in Organizational Leadership. Anthony's special interest is in personality and the effects it has on team work, communication, and relationships both personal and professional.

*Moore, M, & Levitan, L (2003). For hearing people only. (3rd ed., pp. 229-238). Rochester: Deaf Life Press.

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