Living with Deafness as a Disability

Deafness is a Disability


What is Deafness

The word deaf can have very different meanings depending on the background of the person speaking or the context in which the word is used. Medically, the term can be used to mean having profound hearing loss, a physiological condition causing an inability to receive or process aural stimulation (i.e., sound).

Culturally, it can be used in reference to individuals who see themselves as part of Deaf culture. The word “deaf” used in a cultural sense is almost always capitalized (Deaf), while in a medical sense is almost always lower case (deaf).

In the medical view, the global deaf population is very roughly estimated to be 0.1% of the total population (1 in 1000). The figure is likely to be higher in developing countries than in developed countries due to restricted access to health care. Worldwide, at least 5% of the population (1 in 20) is estimated to have less than average hearing. The great majority of people with less than average hearing are elderly or developed hearing loss after leaving school.

A minority of deaf people are part of Deaf culture. They are mostly either individuals who were born deaf (Prelingual) or became deaf at an early age (Peri-lingual or Post-lingual) and who have a “severe or profound hearing loss;” or are children of deaf parents. Members of Deaf culture use sign language as their primary language and often emphatically see themselves as not disabled, but rather as members of a cultural or linguistic minority. Members of this group use Deaf as a label of cultural identity much more than as an expression of hearing status.

Deafness is not limited to humans, but can also occur in other animals.


Deaf vs. Hearing Impaired

Outside of the deaf community, deaf usually means a total hearing loss and someone with a partial hearing loss is more likely to be referred to as hearing impaired. These terms are used in the pathological sense, to indicate an illness or disability.

Political correctness has led to a preference, by hearing people, for referring to a person as hearing impaired rather than deaf. In this sense, it is a euphemism for all with any degree of hearing loss. In fact, Deaf people who consider themselves part of the cultural and linguistic minority, the “Deaf World”, take great affront at the use of the term hearing impaired. They consider it a politically incorrect term.

In contrast, the Deaf cultural world view uses the terms Deaf, with a capital d; hard-of-hearing and hearing in an “us” or “them” sense. In this view, “Deaf” (us) means to experience the world and embrace the values that Deaf people embrace, while “hearing” (them) means to experience the world and embrace the values that hearing people embrace.

This creates a Deaf cultural view in which hard-of-hearing represents a view of the world that embraces values from both the Deaf and hearing world. Indeed, within Deaf culture, the terms hearing and hard-of-hearing are sometimes used to denigrate, provoke or insult both Deaf and hearing people. Deaf students from one school have been known to playfully refer to deaf students from another school as “hearing” during athletic competition.

Historically speaking, Deaf culture has never embraced the term hearing impaired in this “us” versus “them” view because it is thought to be a generalization on pathology that tells nothing about an individuals values. Further, the deaf view of this terminology parallels that of a language minority rather than being a description of pathology or disability.

The term deaf has been the traditional identification of culturally Deaf people for over two and a half centuries, or before the serious examination of hearing loss by medical practitioners and speech teachers, who introduced pathological terminologies such as semi-deaf, semi-mute and the modern hearing impaired to the language, even began.

Deaf remains the preferred term of group identification among culturally deaf people today. Members of the Deaf community often interact through organizations such as the National Association of the Deaf in the United States and the British Deaf Association or Sign Community in the UK and through culturally Deaf web portals such as These organizations and websites are cultural artifacts, not self-help or medical resources.

Some deaf people refer to hearing people as “Deaf impaired” and “thumb impaired” (nearly resembling the sign for incompetent), or “language impaired” as a joke, to make fun of the “hearing impaired” label.

Total deafness is quite rare. In fact, most people who are in the “Deaf World” can hear a little, but since hearing loss is frequency-based rather than amplitude-based, a deaf person’s hearing is not usable. (They can usually only hear bass sounds and/or really high-pitched sounds if anything.) Thus, they and deaf-friendly hearing people believe the narrow “total hearing loss” definition of the deaf is inaccurate because they have the same needs as someone who is totally deaf.

People with a moderate hearing loss, of about 60 dB, generally describe themselves as “partially hearing”, or “partially deaf”. Others who were born hearing, but who have partially lost their hearing through illness or injury are “deafened”. Those with a slight hearing loss (eg. about 30-40 dB hearing loss), or have lost some of their hearing in old age prefer to be called “hard of hearing”.

They generally do not take part in the Deaf community, and attempt to work and socialize with hearing people to the best of their ability, and often with difficulty, and often encounter discrimination when looking for work, or when socializing or dating with hearing people.

These partially hearing people, who find themselves in the “no man’s land” between hearing and deaf communities, feel particularly isolated from both these communities.

A small number of partially hearing people have made comparison with the state of being undead (neither dead nor living), and so regard themselves as “not really deaf”, neither deaf nor hearing.

Other meanings of ‘deaf’

Deaf is also used as a colloquialism to refer to a recalcitrant individual or someone unwilling to listen, obey or acknowledge an authority or partner. The third line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 provides an example:

“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes

I all alone between my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,”

The acronym DEAF is also used to refer to the Deaf Equipment Acquisition Fund.

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