What is the Difference Between “Hard of Hearing” and “Deaf” ?



What’s the difference between “Hard of Hearing” and “Deaf” ?

In contemplating this question, it occurs to me that many labels are actually degrees on a spectrum of experience.  If you imagine that the range is from zero to ten, with zero being “no hearing whatsoever….at any time….with any device….complete silence. Then ‘ten’ would equal supersonic hearing…..better than most…..sometimes painfully loud. Most of us would fall somewhere between the two ends of this spectrum. Add to this observation – – the fact that our place on the spectrum usually changes during our lifetime. This may be due to exposure to loud noises or simply the natural aging process.

So where is the line between these labels?

*Hearing Loss

*Hard of Hearing

*Mildly deaf

*Profoundly deaf

Labels can be tricky. This also comes to mind when I hear “far-sighted, nearsighted, color-blind, tunnel vision, legally blind and just ‘blind’.

When does a ‘condition’ become a ‘label’….morphing from something you HAVE….to something you ARE.  According to the Social Security Administration,

  1.  Legal blindness is defined as visual acuity of 20/200 or worse in the best seeing eye.
  2. A visual field that is limited to only 20 degrees.


But I digress…..


Let’s get back to the questions regarding deafness, hearing loss, hard of hearing, hearing impaired, ………


The following comes to us courtesy of Hearing Loss Association of America and The Center for Disease Control.


People Who Are Born Deaf or are Pre-lingually Deaf

The Deaf Community, those that are born deaf or become deaf before they learn to speak or learn basic vocabulary, usually before the age of 3, usually consider that they are not disabled.

They know that they can’t hear, but they also know that they can do anything any other person can do except hear. They believe it is okay to be Deaf, and that there is no need to “fix” their ears.

Hearing loss is not an issue with them; being deaf is just a part of who they are. They do not identify themselves by what they hear and do not hear.

Persons who are deaf in this category are usually considered to be “culturally” deaf in that they usually feel more at “home” with other people who speak their same language, which is American Sign Language (ASL).

Deaf children of deaf parents usually grow up knowing sign language almost from birth and also use ASL as their primary or preferred method of communication. Some individuals that use ASL use speech, some don’t.

Some have normal voice quality and speak clearly and some do not.

Some are good speechreaders (lipreaders) and some are not.

Some use hearing aids or cochlear implants or assistive devices and some do not.

Within the culturally Deaf community, there are many individual differences just like in the hearing community. Some have some residual hearing and some do not.

Deaf people usually prefer using a sign language interpreter when around people who can hear and usually identify themselves as being “deaf”.

“deaf” vs. “Deaf”

There are two terms that have evolved since the early 1990s in Deaf culture. One is deaf, and the other is Deaf.

The term “deaf” refers to the condition indicating that the ear does not respond to sound as it does with a hearing person.

The term “Deaf” refers to the cultural definition indicating that Deaf people are a cultural, linguistic minority group of people with their own rich set of values, history and language.

They have a strong sense of community, are extraordinarily proud of their ASL and its history, have developed their Deaf culture from the state residential schools and/or colleges.

They were often educated primarily by dedicated teachers of the deaf, many of whom were deaf themselves and served as role models.

Most culturally deaf people continue to support Deaf issues today through National Association of the Deaf (NAD) or other culturally deaf consumer organizations.

People Who are Hard of Hearing or are Post-lingually Deaf or Hard of Hearing

People who are hard of hearing or label themselves as hard of hearing often grew up as hearing as members of the Hearing World and many went to public schools.

They learned to talk, communicate and think like “hearing people” and became immersed in the hearing world, with a range of mild to profound hearing loss.

The hard of hearing person even though they may have a mild to profound hearing loss (or deafness, as the case may be) desire to remain in the “hearing world” using speechreading, residual hearing, hearing aids, cochlear implants, assistive devices, relay, computer and other technologies, utilizing what hearing they have as much as possible.

Hard of Hearing people too, can do anything that other persons do except hear well.

Some people who identify themselves as hard of hearing have excellent speech and voice quality, some do not.

Some function very well in the “hearing world” and sometimes they do not.

Sometimes hard of hearing people feel comfortable in both culturally deaf and hard of hearing communities and use sign language when needed.

Some hard of hearing people want to use every kind of technology and others do not want to admit or realize they have a hearing loss.

Hard of hearing people were either born with some hearing, or lost some or all of their hearing usually around the age of 3 or later in life, or perhaps were able to function in the “hearing world” because of their unique social, educational, family background.

Because they have had hearing, the hard of hearing person sometimes wants to do everything possible to remain immersed and assimilated into the “hearing world.”

Hard of hearing people usually identify themselves as hard of hearing but they also use the word “deaf” especially if they obtained a hearing loss at a young age or attended a specialized school program or college for the deaf.

Therefore, one major difference in the two groups is that one is content with being Deaf and living and identifying with the Deaf Community while functioning in the “hearing world.”

Hard of hearing people choose to do everything possible to live within the “hearing world.” Hard of hearing people feel that hearing and the ability to hear as well as possible are very important.

It’s good to remember, that whatever a person’s hearing status is, be they deaf or hard of hearing, one should always honor the individual’s right to choose whatever community they want to be identified with-deaf or hard of hearing. Controversy often arises when parents choose for their children as there is much disagreement regarding what is “best” for the child.

When two people with the same hearing loss meet, it is possible that one may consider themselves deaf and the other hard of hearing.

Of the almost 30 million Americans with hearing loss today, about two million are Deaf, while the remaining 28 million are hard of hearing (or choose to function as hard of hearing). Data source: US Center for Disease Control.

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About Evelyn

Evelyn Hunter is a SODA with years of experiential study in Deaf Culture. She attended Gallaudet University to immerse herself in this unique deaf world while working for the University and studying sign language to hone her skills. Evelyn has served in training, relationship sales, and marketing -- always seeking to expand awareness of Deaf Culture and the unique challenges the deaf face on a daily basis. The Sign Language Company has recently established a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and a website with a blog, as Evelyn coordinates the marketing and outreach efforts for the agency. Her goal is to attract new clients seeking exceptional service, while maintaining optimal relationships with clients who have selected The Sign Language Company for over 20 years.

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2 Responses to “What is the Difference Between “Hard of Hearing” and “Deaf” ?”

  1. Dinah Marie Lambert Says:

    Newly Deaf from an assault. Enjoy reading this article. Itsvbeen a struggle for .e since I am learning it except my deafness and not even knowing how it live in a deaf community. I am so hurt but so greatful to be alive…Dinah



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