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Deaf? Hard of Hearing? What’s the Difference?

In William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet famously pontificates… “What’s in a name?”

What’s in a name?  Plenty!  Words and labels can have a profound effect on people.

Did you know that the Greek philosopher Aristotle is credited with (or blamed for) coining the term “deaf and dumb”?

He mistakenly believed that deaf people were incapable of being taught, of learning, and of reasoned thinking. He concluded that if a person could not use his/her voice in the same manner as hearing people, then they were incapable of developing cognitive abilities.

As brilliant as Aristotle was, this is one instance in which he was WAY off.

Deaf people are every bit as intelligent as hearing people and to use such an archaic term as “deaf and dumb” in describing someone would be both ignorant and insulting.

In this case, the line is clear and it’s easy to avoid stepping over it. But in other cases, the situation is more nuanced and requires both education and humility.

For example, what’s the difference between being Deaf and hard of hearing? The answer isn’t easy to define and with the rapid increase of cochlear implants it’s becoming more blurred then ever before.

So let’s take a look at a few factors that help determine whether someone is deaf or hard of hearing.

Medically, the definition depends on how many decibels of hearing loss you have.

A loss that is less than profound is generally considered hard of hearing.

This article Types, Degrees of Hearing Loss gives an overview of what hearing loss level would be considered deaf or hard of hearing.

Then there is the cultural definition.

According to the cultural definition, being Deaf or hard of hearing has NOTHING to do with how much someone can hear. For example, “hard-of-hearing” can denote a person with a mild-to-moderate hearing loss OR it can denote a deaf person who doesn’t have/want any cultural affiliation with the Deaf community.  Or both.

Ultimately, it has to do with how they identify themselves- do they identify more closely with hearing people or with Deaf people?

If you are feeling more confused now than when you began reading this, it’s okay. You are not alone.

The Deaf and hard of hearing community is diverse. There are variations in the cause and degree of hearing loss, age of onset, educational background, communication methods, and how individuals feel about their hearing loss.

How people “label” or identify themselves is personal and may reflect identification with the Deaf and hard of hearing community, the degree to which they can hear, or the relative age of onset.

What it all comes down to is this… show your respect for people by refusing to use outdated or offensive terms and when in doubt, ask the individual how they identify themselves.

They will thank you for it and so do we!