Writing about people with hearing loss: A primer on terminology

Posted on February 7, 2022

One hundred years or so ago, a child born deaf in North America might have attended one of several institutions for the education of “the deaf and dumb.” The institution might even have been called an “asylum.” Now, of course, terms like “deaf and dumb” are widely known to be offensive. But what are the right terms? Is it okay to say someone is “deaf”? Or should it be “Deaf”? Is the term “hearing impaired” okay? What about “hard of hearing”? We’re now keenly aware of how important naming is and how much difference even a capital letter can make. Fear of making the wrong choice can be stressful, especially when the wrong word can do damage or offend.

“Nothing about us without us”

As a general principle, there’s only one right way to determine the correct term: use the term that people choose for themselves. The slogan “nothing about us without us” applies as strongly to terminology as it does to policy.Note 1 But it’s often not possible to establish or cater to individual preference. We must therefore turn to consumer organizationsNote 2 that are in touch with the preferences of their members.

The difference between “Deaf” and “deaf”

One such organization, The Canadian Association of the Deaf, educates us about the critical distinction between the terms “Deaf” and “deaf.” The lowercase version is simply a descriptor of an audiological state: a person is deaf. But the capital “D” version (Deaf) refers to people who identify with Deaf culture and use Sign language as their primary language. Notice the capital “S” on the word “sign” as well. The term “Sign language” refers to fully fledged languages such as American Sign Language (ASL), Langue des signes québécoise (LSQ), or Indigenous Sign languages. These languages are now officially recognized as the primary languages of communication by Deaf people in Canada.Note 3

In this context, Deaf is a cultural descriptor, not an audiological one. How much Deaf people can hear or whether they speak is irrelevant. Being Deaf is not about hearing. Many Deaf people reject notions of disability and any suggestion that they have a loss. On the contrary, they have their own language, a rich culture, and a strong sense of community.

Terminology guidelines: Terms to avoid, terms to use

In other cases, terminology is murkier. People do not fall into neatly defined groups. Factors that might determine whether someone identifies with one group or another include level of hearing, age of onset of hearing loss, use of technical aids such as hearing aids or cochlear implants, and proficiency in any kind of sign language. Many people with hearing loss do not identify with a group at all.

Here are some guidelines to help you out.

Terms to avoid

deaf mute: This term is long outdated in Canada and the United States, as is any term that associates deafness with the ability or otherwise to communicate in a spoken language. If you must refer to speech, then “does not speak” (never “cannot speak”) is the best phrasing.

hearing handicapped: The term “handicapped” is no longer appropriate in any disability context. It evokes outdated stereotypes.

hearing impaired: This term, although we still see it used, is best avoided. It’s particularly offensive to Deaf people. The concept of “impairment” implies falling short of a norm.

Also avoid any wording that might imply that any condition is necessarily a hardship, an illness, a challenge, or an abnormality. For example, avoid “suffers from,” “afflicted by,” or “is a victim of.”

Terms to use

Although the terms under this heading are acceptable, they must still be used with sensitivity to context. Some people prefer “people-first” wording (for example, “people who are deaf”). Others prefer “identity-first” language (for example, “deaf people”). If you can’t establish preference from the context, then identity-first language is probably the safest choice.

All terms here except “hearing loss” are adjectives. Don’t use them as nouns describing a group (for example, don’t use “the hard of hearing”).

Only “Deaf” is capitalized. All other terms are lowercase.

Deaf (uppercase) is appropriate for people who identify with the Deaf community.

deaf (lowercase) describes an audiological condition of severe hearing loss. People who are deaf communicate in a wide variety of ways, and it’s therefore a broad term.

deafblind applies to people with a combination of hearing loss and low vision. The term is sometimes written as “deaf-blind” and capitalized variously, but the World Federation of the Deafblind writes it in lowercase and spells it with no hyphen.

deafened (or late-deafened) is preferred by some people who have lost their hearing, usually as adults. The term helps draw attention to the unique profile resulting from becoming deaf after once having been able to hear.

hard of hearing is also a broad term. Its appropriateness is confirmed in the name of a key national organization: The Canadian Hard of Hearing Association. It encompasses any degree of hearing loss from mild to severe. People who are hard of hearing often use their voice to communicate and might have residual hearing that can be supplemented with technical aids. The term is most commonly written without any hyphens, even when it appears in front of a noun: “a hard of hearing person.”

hearing loss: This term is acceptable to describe an audiological phenomenon. It’s a noun and the right term to describe a condition generally, as in “Hearing loss is becoming more common.” “A person with hearing loss” is acceptable.

people who are Deaf, deafened, or hard of hearing: This phrase is the most widely accepted choice when you need to include all possible profiles in one phrase. Remember that capitalizing the “D” is vital.

A final word of caution

I’ve recommended these terms based on those used by key consumer organizations in Canada. But following these guidelines does not guarantee that no one will be offended, puzzled, or annoyed. Individuals might have preferences or aversions that don’t conform with widely accepted terminology. General preferences change, and even organizations that voice the needs and concerns of their members aren’t perfectly consistent with each other.

But serious offence is usually caused by assumptions and stereotypes rather than the terms themselves. If you find yourself having to write about people with hearing loss, consult reputable organizations, ask questions, and make no assumptions about what anyone can or cannot do.

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The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Melanie Sexton

Melanie Sexton

Melanie Sexton, PhD, is an instructor at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute, where she leads English workshops in workplace writing. She is passionate about this topic because writing well at work, she claims, can change the world.

Technically she falls into the category of “deafened” people but prefers to describe herself in the plain-language way her audiologist does: “very deaf.”


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Submitted by Susan Magill on February 27, 2023, at 17:17

Is there an acceptable symbol to use as a graphic to indicate hard of hearing/deaf/Deaf/oral deaf/deafened?