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“Hearing Impaired” – Good or Bad?

Dear #DeafInMedia,

I know that there is some special way to refer to people who can’t hear, but I keep getting confused about what that is. Is “hearing impaired” good or bad?


Dear Emily,

I get it! We all want to be respectful, but it can be hard to keep track. And it can all feel kinda arbitrary – like, why do I have to be so careful?

So first of all I want to applaud you for asking, and for wanting to do the right thing. I can’t tell you how many people just don’t want to think about it, and then blame people from the group being referred to for getting mad if the (outdated/ paternalistic/ generally sucky) version is used.

Thing is, language definitely helps shape perceptions, and that’s why it can be so important to respect the language that a group has chosen to refer to themselves.

Take “hearing impaired.” That seems harmless enough. People who are Deaf or hard of hearing or DeafBlind all have one thing in common, right? Their hearing is impaired?

Wellllll not exactly.  

There are a lot of problems with “hearing impaired.” For one thing, it came from the hearing medical community – it’s not something that originated with Deaf people. It centers the “problem,” with “impairment” right in there. While the fact that sound is not perceived via the ear is not false exactly, it’s also often just kind of beside the point. Many Deaf people don’t feel any particular lack in their everyday lives. (Are you fluent in ASL? No? How about if I start referring to you as “ASL-impaired?” Is your peripheral vision just normal, rather than as excellent as most Deaf people’s? Maybe I’ll call you “peripheral-vision-impaired.” You get the idea!)

It also assumes that there is something indecent or improper about plain ol’ “Deaf.” That the word needs to be sidestepped or prettied up.

But “Deaf” is how Deaf people have referred to ourselves for a very long time! Generally speaking, we like it, and we prefer it to “hearing impaired.” By a lot!

That’s generally speaking, though. It’s always a good idea to ask, as individual preferences do vary.

Now, getting into “deaf,” “Deaf,” “hard of hearing,” “DeafBlind” and all the rest of it is another ball of wax, so I won’t do that right now. Just, avoid “hearing impaired!” And “Deaf” works great in pretty much every situation in which you’d be tempted to use “hearing impaired.”

Thanks for writing!

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