Are you a “hearing person”? If so, you may not have experienced this greeting from a deaf person. When you meet a deaf person, after you exchange names, they may ask, HEARING, DEAF, YOU? Hearing students learning to sign may give themselves away when they don’t know to ask this—it’s actually more of a tell than fluent signing or fingerspelling! However, the Deaf community is kind in asking whether you are hearing or deaf. They are interested in why you know ASL and where you learned to sign. They appreciate your desire to learn their language.
If you’re a hearing person just entering the Deaf community, you may be wondering how deaf people define and talk about themselves. As Marissa Graff writes in “The Correct Terminology for the Deaf Community,” many of the terms historically used to describe the Deaf have been wholeheartedly rejected by today’s community. Read on to learn about the different terminology used by this group. Whether hearing or Deaf, the language we use has a powerful effect on our perceptions and identities.
Deaf (with a capital D) identifies the Deaf community and their culture. ASL is their first and primary language. They embrace their Deaf identity. Deaf people are generally born into a Deaf family. Children of Deaf Adults are known as CODA or KODA—children or kids of Deaf adults. The Deaf community is clear: deafness is NOT a disability, simply a unique way of experiencing the world.
The word deaf (lowercase d) refers to the physical inability to hear. Use this term to describe deaf people, but not the Deaf community at large. For example, children with cochlear implants are considered deaf children.
Oral deaf identifies people who are born deaf or became deaf before learning to speak but are taught to speak. According to the Toronto District School Board’s article on Deaf identities, people who are oral deaf typically do not use American Sign Language. Oral deaf people often prefer verbal and auditory modes of communication. An oral deaf person who can both sign and speak can be considered “Deaf” if they are accepted as such by other deaf people and use Sign Llanguage within the Deaf community.
Deafened, also known as late-deafened, is both a medical and a sociological term referring to individuals who have become deaf later in life. Deafened people may not be able to identify with either the Deaf or the Hard of Hearing communities.
Hard of Hearing is a term that applies to a person or aor group of people whose hearing loss ranges from mild to profound and whose usual means of communication is speech. It is both a medical and a sociological term. Marissa Graff, who is Hard of Hearing, wrote an article on this and other Deaf terminology. Graff states that those who are Hard of Hearing are “people who are not Deaf and not hearing.” This group would include, for example, someone who is progressively losing their hearing and wears a hearing aid.
Hearing impaired is an outdated term that is no longer accepted by the Deaf or professional communities.
Deaf-mute is also an unacceptable term. This word was often used to denote a deaf person who chose not to use their voice. “Mute,” however, is not an accurate or respectful term for this. “Deaf and dumb” is also, understandably, offensive.
Deaf-plus is a term that has been used for many years to refer to people who have disabilities in addition to deafness. Advocates suggest using more concrete terms, such as “deaf with mental disabilities,” “deaf-blind,” “deaf with CP,” etc.
Sign language is the official language of the Deaf community. The S should always be capitalized, like “English” and “French.” Languages are proper nouns, which in English are capitalized.
TTY is short for teletypewriter, a special device used by D/deaf, Hard of Hearing, and hearing people to communicate by phone.
I hope these terms will help someone new to the Deaf community! Conscious language matters. The Deaf are not just a group of people with a physical defect—they are a vibrant community with a rich culture and history.
“Deaf, Oral Deaf, Deafened or Hard of Hearing.” Toronto District School Board. Accessed February 7, 2023.
“The Difference between d/Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing - Ai-Media Creating Accessibility, One Word at a Time.” Ai Media. Ai-Media creating accessibility, one word at a time., January 10, 2023.
Graff, Marissa. “The Correct Terminology for the Deaf Community.” The McDaniel Free Press, April 12, 2010. http://www.mcdanielfreepress.com/2010/04/12/the-correct-terminology-for-the-deaf-community/.
“Terminology.” Canadian Association of the Deaf - Association des Sourds du Canada, July 3, 2015.
“Understanding the 5 Stages of Hearing Loss.” Understanding the 5 Stages of Hearing Loss: Jacksonville ENT Surgery: Otolaryngology. Accessed February 7, 2023. https://www.jacksonvilleentsurgery.com/blog/understanding-the-5-stages-of-hearing-loss.
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