What’s in a Name?
Many terms are used to describe us, including deaf, hard of hearing, hearing impaired, Deaf (with a capital “D”), late-deafened, oral, signing deaf, and speaking deaf. But what is right for one person may not be for another, and there are words that we should avoid. How can you navigate your way through this potential minefield?
First, it is important to understand what each name means. Deaf is sometimes capitalized, or referred to as “Capital D” Deaf when referring to people who consider themselves culturally deaf, have a strong deaf identity, and use American Sign Language for the majority of their communication. People who are speaking deaf don’t rely on sign language to communicate, and usually do not use capitalization.
“Hearing impaired” used to be the catchall term, but in today’s politically correct world, it has negative connotations. First, this terminology does not use people-first language; it places the disability before the person. Second, it establishes “hearing” as the standard, and anything different as “impaired,” or substandard.
Mildie Oberkotter, who was deafened in infancy, says that words like “hearing impaired,” “hard of hearing,” or even “hearing loss,” are considered to be misleading. “Many born deaf folks never lost their hearing. They were born without hearing to lose!” says the trustee of the Oberkotter Foundation, which provides information families need to make informed communication choices for their DHH children.
Kristin Buehl’s recent experience at the doctor’s office further illustrates the confusion surrounding terminology. While she was getting acquainted with her new doctor, the doctor said, “I understand you have a hearing problem.” Buehl explained, “Yes, I’m deaf.” The doctor responded, “I will write in the file that you’re hearing impaired.” Buehl, who was born profoundly deaf, pressed her point.
Interestingly, as the doctor wrote this down in the file, she said, “Don’t worry – I’ll never use the word deaf to your face. We’ll only use it for the medical file.” Buehl asked, “Why not? What’s wrong with saying deaf in person?” The doctor was surprised by Buehl’s attitude, and how comfortable she was with the term. The physician didn’t even realize that it was okay to use the word deaf in conversations. “And this was a highly educated doctor!” notes Buehl.
At a different appointment in a different office, after Buehl told the nurse she was deaf, the California woman met up with a second nurse. “The first nurse told me that you’re hard of hearing,” the second nurse commented. Buehl corrected her. “No, I’m not hard of hearing, I’m deaf.” While Buehl understands that she comes across as hard of hearing because her speech is good and she doesn’t have problems understanding most people, she doesn’t want others to think she can hear pretty well. “It’s not an accurate description,” says Buehl. “I don’t want them to think I can hear pretty well, which is not the case at all!”
Angela Lee Foreman, the managing partner at Sapphire Executives, says the benefits of telling people she is deaf are unmistakable. “They become more understanding and open to clearer communication,” says the California scientist.
Stacey Carroll, a Massachusetts nurse practitioner, doesn’t use the term “deaf.” She finds that people get scared or feel sorry for her. “I usually either say I have a hearing loss or I totally bypass the terminology and just say, ‘Please face me when you’re speaking, because I lipread,’” says Carroll. She doesn’t find the term offensive and uses it to describe herself to her family and friends, but not to people she meets for the first time.
Though it’s cumbersome, many people and organizations use “people who are deaf or hard of hearing,” because it includes everyone. Oberkotter is a fan, but still she says, “I’m still looking for the appropriate term to identify all of us deafies.”
Your best bet is to take your cues from the person you’re interacting with. How does she refer to herself? If all else fails, you can always ask for her preference.
Comfort level and identity clearly weigh in on people’s terminology of choice. But no matter what we call ourselves, we eschew the term “deaf and dumb.” Describing people who are deaf as also being stupid can be found as far back as Aristotle. In later years, the meaning of “dumb” changed to “silent.” Thankfully, this is no longer true of people who are deaf or hard of hearing. We sign, lipread, listen, write, and talk to communicate. No matter our communication modality, our brains are intact!
That means our deaf accents should not – in any way – reflect our educational level or ability to think. Some people who are deaf or hard of hearing have been called “retarded” or are prejudged because of the way they talk. Carroll says her patients constantly ask where she’s from because of her deaf accent. “Sometimes I tell them I’m from here and my speech is different because of my hearing loss,” she says. “That usually gets an ‘Oh, I’m sorry’ reply, accompanied by a look of pity. So now I just say, ‘Massachusetts. Where are you from?’ to bypass the pity party,” Carroll wryly adds. “Or if I’m in the mood, I’ll say, ‘Well, I’m from here, but my ancestors came over from Lithuania.’ The best is when they respond, ‘Ah. I thought that was a Lithuanian accent.’”
If you’ve used a derogatory word without realizing it, or used the wrong term, don’t fear. Everyone makes mistakes. You can take comfort in the fact that deafness has a major benefit: We likely didn’t hear what you said!