Picking a term to describe our hearing is fraught with implications.
The idea behind “hearing impaired” is that we are lesser human beings and must be fixed to function.
Those who suffer (dare I use “suffer”?) from mild to moderate hearing loss do not necessarily identify with the term deaf—a word that is historically loaded and also carries a distinction between capitalized and lowercase “d”. Uppercase “Deaf” reflects a community and a culture of identity, and carries pride similar to that of ethnic and religious groups. Lowercase “deaf” can reflect only severe to profound hearing loss, or hearing loss on the whole, depending who you ask.
The phrase “hard of hearing” has been perceived as a term of old people, a euphemism alienating young individuals who have a hearing loss. When addressing others with hearing loss, their cultural background and self-definition will give us a clue of the term they prefer. The question becomes tricky, however, when we present it to ourselves.
Though I no longer use the term “hearing impaired” when addressing others, it is one I reserve for myself because it suits my history with hearing loss. Over the course of twenty-three years, I have watched my hearing loss fluctuate from mild to severe to moderate. Thanks to chronic infections, a cholesteatoma, and scars from surgery during adolescence, I know exactly why my hearing is gone.
The notion that I “lost” my hearing makes it sound no different than misplacing a toy or my house keys—an idea I loathe when I think of my struggles. It’s not like I can look under my bed, and it will suddenly be there from a time I accidentally dropped it. Every gory detail from destruction-based infection and the fight to stop it is etched into my mind clear as day.
And calling myself “deaf” at this point would be denying the hearing I won in my fight against infection. To simply call it a “loss” feels like glossing over the pain I have experienced and ignoring the nightmarish memories that still haunt me in my sleep.
Hearing people, especially my family, have taken the term “hearing impaired” away from me because they feel it limits the “true me.” Frequently, they say something like “but I don’t see you as disabled” and that I should not use a specific term to define my hearing because “there’s so much more to you” and “the worst is in the past.” Though my hearing has been stabilized and my current eardrum grafts are holding, there is always a chance that will change.
The past becomes present with hearing loss, scars, and the dance to prevent infections; the stability of my future will always be in question. My body’s reliability and functionality is impaired, and to pretend otherwise is to live in shame-driven denial. One of the definitions of impaired is “to be damaged”, and my loss comes from damaged tissue in my ear. While this damage is part of my identity and history, it does not make me damaged on the whole.
Hearing people who want to take this term away are grappling with their own prejudices towards my body, but their prejudices should not be my problem. In calling myself hearing impaired, I put a part of my identity forward without worrying about their prejudices. After all, who has the worst damage if they fear an illness, scar tissue, and its fallout?
Where I struggle the most is when hard of hearing individuals try to take that term from me, and tell me what I should say about my identity. It is like a hearing person telling me “But you look so normal”, because I am being told how I should present myself. The community’s argument would be I use the term because I internalized oppression about hearing loss and that I see my whole self as “damaged goods.”
Members within the community have told me, “We are not really disabled because we can do anything that hearing people can do.” This belief, however, does not change my reality that tasks like socializing, studying, or keeping up at a job are made harder by my hearing loss. Changing my title is tantamount to denying how I got my hearing loss, its fallout, and how it is part of who I am as a person.
Regardless of how one ends up with a loss, no one in our community should ever tell another how they must present themselves. I have learned to use the title “hard of hearing” and “D/deaf” for the majority of us because that is the preferred term. My term, however, is one I see as recognition of my ups, downs, and loop-de-loops with hearing loss, and hopefully, a term our community can someday reclaim.
The question of what term we want to use for ourselves is one that can only be answered with experience. What one person finds offensive, another will seize with pride. Stories from different individuals dictate the expressions they use, and the answers they find about their identities with hearing loss. My answer may not be the best received, but I like to think it works well for who I am.
What words do you use for yourselves, and how did you come to that identity?