deaf / Deaf / hard of hearingLast updated
Deaf has been defined in many ways but can be understood medically as the complete or nearly complete loss of functional hearing. When writing about deafness as only a physical condition, it does not need to be capitalized. However, people who are d/Deaf and who identify themselves as part of Deaf Culture may choose to describe themselves as Deaf. Deaf Culture is commonly defined by the use of a shared signed language (often American Sign Language in the US) and a connection to Deaf History and organizations.
When writing about a person who is d/Deaf, it’s best to confirm which capitalization they prefer whenever possible; some may prefer the term Deaf person as opposed to “person who is deaf.” The term d/Deaf is inclusive of both the condition of deafness and Deaf Culture (a brief explanation on first reference may be helpful for general audiences). For a person who has partial hearing loss but is not d/Deaf, the term “hard of hearing” can be used. “Hearing impairment” or “hearing impaired” are generally viewed negatively by Deaf Culture, especially by those who may not see their inability to hear as an impairment.
Additionally, “hearing loss” is not an inclusive term to describe every person’s experience who is d/Deaf or hard of hearing, as someone who was born d/Deaf never lost their hearing. Note that “deaf and dumb” and “deaf-mute” are considered deragotory and inaccurate terms; normative speech is not the only type of communication, nor is every d/Deaf person unable to produce verbal speech.
In the United States, the primary language of the d/Deaf is American Sign Language (ASL). ASL, like other sign languages, is expressed by movements of the hands and face. ASL is not a sign language version or translation of English, but a distinct language. For this reason, it is also distinct from sign languages used in other countries where hearing people primarily speak English (British Sign Language and ASL are two different languages.) To spell out a word in English, an ASL speaker may use fingerspelling, the ASL manual alphabet wherein each letter of the alphabet corresponds to a hand position.
People who speak ASL will have as many dialects and idiosyncrasies as do speakers of other languages. A prominent variation of ASL in the United States is Black American Sign Language, which was born out of the differing education received by white and Black d/Deaf students due to school segregation, and which by some estimates is used by around 50 percent of d/Deaf Black people.
The term “gesture” to describe the act of signing is inaccurate when referring to ASL. Although some may continue to use the term “use ASL,” there has been a more recent move toward the term “speak ASL,” since it is a distinct language.
Historically, there has been a divide between the schools of manualism, which supports the use of sign language for people who are d/Deaf, and oralism, which promotes only spoken language and the use of lip-reading (also called speech-reading). In the early 20th century, proponents of oralism succeeded in banning ASL and removing d/Deaf teachers from many d/Deaf schools in the country. However, organizations such as the National Association of the Deaf defended the use of sign language and fought to preserve it. This divide continues today, and centers on whether d/Deaf people should be encouraged to acculturate to the hearing/speaking population (oralism) or maintain their specific identity and community through the use of sign language (manualism). Not every person who is d/Deaf will use lip-reading; however, if speaking with someone who does lip-read, it’s important to speak clearly and keep your mouth visible (i.e., avoid eating or drinking while speaking, gesturing in front of your face, wearing an opaque mask, or turning your face away from their line of sight).
Similarly, there is ongoing debate in the d/Deaf Community about the use of cochlear implants, particularly for children who are d/Deaf. A cochlear implant differs from a hearing aid in that it is a surgically implanted device that, instead of amplifying sound, bypasses a portion of the ear altogether and directly stimulates the auditory nerve in the brain. Cochlear implants, when given to children who were born d/Deaf (and especially when born to hearing parents), are viewed by some as denying those children the experience of Deaf Culture or otherwise taking away from their identity and experience as d/Deaf people. For others, cochlear implants are seen as a necessary tool. When writing about cochlear implants, avoid hyperbolic language that portrays them as “miraculous.” Also, be aware that not every person who is d/Deaf will use or want to use a hearing aid or cochlear implant.
- Deaf: Cultures and Communication, 1600 to the Present (Yale)
- When Deafness is Medicalized: Inside the Culture Clash Over Cochlear Implants (PS Mag)
- National Association of the Deaf (NAD)
- Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center: Resources (Gallaudet)
- The Black ASL Project (Gallaudet)
Deafness and hearing loss are common conditions. The phrase “d/Deaf” can describe both the condition of deafness and Deaf Culture. When writing about a person who is d/Deaf, it’s best to confirm which capitalization they prefer whenever possible; some may prefer the term Deaf person as opposed to “person who is deaf.” The term d/Deaf is inclusive of both the condition of deafness and Deaf Culture (a brief explanation on first reference may be helpful for general audiences). For a person who has partial hearing loss but is not d/Deaf, the term “hard of hearing” can be used.