“Hearing Impaired” or “Deaf”?

deaf_tattoo-70871One of my good friends is a medical professional. He and I were conversing about Jess’ and my adoption yesterday, and in the course of our dialog he referred to our child as “hearing impaired”.

“I’m going to stop you for a second,” I politely interjected. “They do not like to be called ‘hearing impaired’. They prefer the term ‘deaf’.”

“They don’t? Why not?” he asked, confused.

“They consider it to be offensive.”

“But I don’t understand,” he went on, “their hearing is, in fact, impaired.”

“You are stating a fact about them, yes. However, using that title causes people to define them by what they lack rather than who they are.”

“I never knew that. All of my colleagues refer to them as ‘hearing impaired’.”

 

This isn’t an unusual conversation. The term ‘hearing impaired’ is widely considered to be the politically correct term for deaf people Ironically, deaf people find the term demeaning and offensive.

Imagine, for instance, if your friends introduced you with something like, “This is my friend, Tim. He’s unable to breathe underwater.” You might find the introduction comical at first; it’s a nonsensical piece of information about something that doesn’t define you. But now imagine that everyone took that comical statement about what you can’t do and used it continually to define you. It would pretty quickly get old and feel degrading. You don’t want the first thing people know about you to not only be something that you are unable to do, but something you have very little interest in doing.

Hearing people tend to project their own perceptions into the Deaf community. For instance, if a hearing person were to suddenly go deaf, they would greatly miss their ability to hear, maybe pity themselves, and might even seek the pity of others as well. Most Deaf people, on the other hand, rarely think about their deafness. They do not consider it to be a handicap, and, were a corrective surgery available to allow them the same hearing as other individuals, they would not want it.

 

The medical community views deafness as a deficiency—as some handicap that needs to be fixed—and thus the term “hearing impaired” was born out of a need for correction to define the deaf. The term was never peer reviewed by the Deaf community, yet it has been well integrated into society as the preferred and politically correct term.

Next time you hear someone refer to a deaf person as “hearing impaired”, be polite. The hearing individual is doing what they’ve been taught is polite. Gently educate them as to the correct terminology and tell them that Deaf people prefer to be introduced not by what they aren’t, but by what they are. And by that, I still don’t mean “Deaf”. I mean actually by what they are: scientists, engineers, professors, actors.

The more often we react appropriately to help people understand this correct terminology, the sooner we can eliminate the term “hearing impaired” from our society’s vocabulary.

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