Recent news has brought our attention to our language and terms we use to describe each other. Countless labels involving race or gender are widely known and deemed to be distasteful, insulting, or just politically incorrect.
Many in the Deaf community have fought tirelessly over the years to change the terminology used to describe individuals with varying levels of hearing.
As a kid, I remember hearing “Deaf and Dumb“. I knew that “dumb” referred to an inability to speak, but the other meaning of the word crept into my awareness causing me to see deaf people as mentally diminished in some way. Watching my deaf sister’s accomplishments as a child, I was amazed at how much she could do considering her “diminished” mental state. I was a kid and didn’t know any better, but I know I wasn’t the only one with this misconception.
Deaf-Mute was the proper term….until we learned that the majority of deaf people DO have the ability to speak. So “mute” was no longer appropriate.
Hearing Impaired – still not right. This label again emphasizes what a deaf person cannot do…..instead of the endless things they can do.
Disabled – No again. Most deaf people do not see themselves as disabled. They can do everything except hear.
Handicapped? – Nope. See above……
The current terms in use by the deaf community today are deaf and hard of hearing. In 1991, the World Federation of the Deaf voted to use the official terms deaf and hard of hearing. The National Association of the Deaf supports these terms, and they are used by most organizations involved with the Deaf community. Evolving terminology allows individuals to describe themselves based on their hearing status, cultural orientation and communication preferences.
Each deaf or hard of hearing person is unique in his or her hearing status and ability to communicate using spoken language.
I recently read a comment from a deaf woman who is uncomfortable with the term “hearing loss”. As she points out “I was born deaf. So I haven’t ‘lost’ anything”.
Prelingually deaf refers to individuals who were born deaf or became deaf prior to learning to understand and speak a language. Postlingually deaf or late deafened describes a person who lost hearing ability after he or she learned to understand spoken language. These distinctions are important as they may determine a person’s familiarity with and memory of spoken English. These terms do not relate to intelligence or potential.
Years ago, I worked at the Atlanta Airport assisting passengers making flight connections. The passengers I assisted had varying levels of ability. A blind man corrected my initial attempt to hold his arm. He told me that the proper assistance was allowing him to hold MY arm instead. Wheelchair passengers conveyed their personal preference regarding assistance. The wheelchair basketball team assured me they needed NO assistance at all. Other than a ten year old deaf girl, I was never called to assist a deaf passenger with their connections. They seem to be especially gifted at actually reading the airport signs.
So let’s keep things simple. Deaf people are very much like hearing people, except they are deaf. You’re pretty safe from offending a deaf person by using “deaf” or “hard of hearing” ……and don’t worry. If you slip up and use one of the older terms. Most deaf people I know will happily educate you regarding the proper terminology.