Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"Deaf" or "hearing impaired"?

The recent foofaraw over Harry Reid's use of the terms "light-skinned" and "Negro dialect" and everyone's later realization that he was just being accurate, if thoughtless, has got me thinking about the terms members of the minority I belong to -- people who cannot hear -- use to describe ourselves.

Twenty years ago I interchangeably used the terms "deaf" and "hearing impaired" to describe everyone in the state of not-hearing-at-all or not-hearing-very-well. But today many deaf people take such pride in American Sign Language that they do not feel handicapped in any way, hence detest the term "hearing impaired."

Indeed, "hearing impaired" is not the best choice of words to describe a group of people who do not in any way consider themselves physically disabled. Any group has the right to be called what it wants to be called, even though ignorant outsiders might employ other terms. Using capital-D "Deaf" for those who identify with the culture of American Sign Language seems to me a reasonable accommodation to diversity.

But what about "small-d" deaf people like me, those who lose their hearing in childhood or adulthood and choose to stay with spoken English as our language of preference and remain members of the hearing culture?

This is a more difficult question to answer. "Hard of hearing," a term the Deaf seem to prefer for us, isn't really suitable for those, like me, who are profoundly or totally deaf. And "deaf" alone doesn't seem to be a precise description for those with mild hearing loss.

"Hearing impaired" seems to be the most accurate term for people like me. After all, my hearing was impaired into nonexistence when I was three years old. This is why I think of my deafness as a disability, not a culture.

I am acutely aware of what I lost to meningitis: the melodies of Chopin and Berlioz, the sigh of wind in the trees, voices on the telephone, the murmur of my wife and children, the siren of a rapidly approaching fire engine out of my sight, the rumble of a freight train down the tracks, the warning roar of an airplane engine starting up down the ramp. At these times deafness is definitely a handicap.

I've come to agree, however, that "handicapped" or "disabled" are not useful terms to describe those who don't feel they suffer from not hearing. If the Deaf don't miss what they've never had, where's the disability? The real handicap, they will argue--and not without justification--is not within themselves but in the obsolete and benighted views many ignorant hearing people have of the deaf. Not for nothing did the existential philosophers declare that hell is other people.

Another view might be that "disability" is a relative term. Most of the time deaf people of all kinds are not handicapped. We walk happily through most ordinary days, going to work and talking with our friends and families, without thinking about our lack of hearing.

Once in a while we are painfully reminded of it. When that happens, it can be devastating. In 2006 Tara Rose McAvoy, an ASL speaker and Miss Deaf Texas, was walking along railroad tracks, rapt in her text pager, when a speeding freight train, its horn blaring, struck her from behind and killed her.

Not long before, I had been walking down an airport ramp to my airplane, my eyes to the right admiring the other planes lined up on the tarmac, when I suddenly looked forward and saw uncomfortably close up the whirling propellers of a big twin whose engines had just been started. A few more seconds of inattentiveness and I would have been hamburger.

On those occasions both Ms. McAvoy and I were definitely handicapped by our deafness, but I was luckier.

Perhaps a good umbrella term for us might be "Deaf and hearing-impaired"? That might work for those who know all about us, but it'll only confuse the ignorant public, who'll just think the phrase is redundant.

So go the vicissitudes of identity politics. We can't please everybody. But we can respect their choices, whatever they may be. Over the years, simple usage may shake better words out of the bush of language, just as "journalist" has replaced the quaintly sexist "newspaperman," which I used with abandon twenty years ago.

Just call me a "journo" for short.


  1. Just finished re-reading "Fun and Pathos of One Life' by James T.DuBois. Man you are sure loaded with his genes. "Bill"D

  2. I get tired of "Bless your heart, you can't ..." because I have a slight hearing loss (15% 1 ear, 40% the other, getting worse) & 11 years ago almost 100% blind in 1 eye then 6 years ago, almost total in the other. Good doctors got me back to "high partial" legally blind (lack most of my depth and peripheral). Handicapped? Disabled? Maybe a little; mostly I'm inconvenienced! Netagene (