I’ve heard it all. Hearing impaired, hard of hearing, deaf-mute, “people who use sign language,” deaf. There are so many terms flying around used to describe a person with deafness I don’t blame hearing people for being utterly confused as to which label to use. In my experience, the most common label I tend to overhear by hearing individuals is “hearing impaired.” I think this is probably because hearing people are trying to avoid referring to a total state of deafness, as implied by the term “deaf,” and instead using what they believe to be a milder phrase that simply hints at a lower decibel of hearing ability.
As well-meaning as these people are, “hearing impaired” is NOT the correct way to refer to individuals with deafness. The proper label for these individuals is simply, “deaf.” Contrary to conventional wisdom (or rather, the Hearing Perspective), many deaf people fully embrace their deafness and the beautiful sign language and culture it gives them access to. This celebration of sign language and culture has led to a new “term” for deafness: Deaf. The word “Deaf,” with a capital “D,” refers to a deaf individual who identifies primarily with Deaf culture. These individuals do not view their deafness as a medical condition, but a cultural identity.
So what’s the difference between the terms “hearing impaired” and “deaf?” Or primarily, why do Deaf people prefer the label “deaf?” It’s all about language and the subtle connotations words give. “Hearing impaired” implies a loss, using negative language to frame the concept of deafness. In addition, the word “impaired” has a very negative meaning. According to Merriam-Webster, the primary definition of “impaired” is “being in a less than perfect or whole condition.” This word focuses on what deaf people lack. “Deaf,” however, merely conveys a state of being, which includes deafness. The word “deaf” has come to be associated with sign language and Deaf culture, which means using this label references what deaf people have. To put it simply: the former term negatively frames the state of deafness, while the latter term positively frames the state of deafness.
Let’s clear it up once and for all – the correct way to refer to people with deafness is “deaf.”