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The difference between D/deaf, hard of hearing and hearing-impaired

Updated: Aug 18

The terms D/deaf, hard of hearing and hearing-impaired are well-known in our society. The Deaf community is made up of diverse people with varying levels of hearing loss, who come from different backgrounds and overlapping cultures, and each individual person self-identify with their own preferred term.


However, in hearing-dominated areas, there is still a common confusion over these terms. Hearing people as a whole may be aware of the existence of these terms, but they often find themselves in a pickle over what each of them mean in reality, how different they are from each other, and how appropriate they are to use in different cases.


In every case, it is important to be educated on how to not misidentify someone and come across as ignorant or insensitive, even if you didn’t mean it at heart.


So, let’s get a better understanding of these different terms connected with hearing loss and deafness:


1. Deaf (with an uppercase ‘D’)


Deaf with a capital D is most commonly used to refer to a person with a hearing loss so profound that they have barely any or no functional hearing. It is also used to describe people who are active members of the Deaf community and identify themselves as culturally Deaf.


Deaf people see their deafness as an identity, not a disability. They value their Deaf identity and take great pride in being who they are. For them, Deaf (with an uppercase ‘D’) is a sign of a cultural identity for people with hearing loss who share a mutual culture and language with each other.


Deaf people are prelingually deaf, and prefer to communicate in sign language because they view it as their first language. People who identify as Deaf are often those who have been deaf all their lives, or those who lost their hearing sometime later in life, and became a member of the Deaf community.


A Deaf person does not need to be born in the community, they can get involved in it at any time. Some of them have family members who are deaf, whether that be a parent, a sibling, or their aunt. There are many others who are born into hearing families, who later become deaf in life, and get to connect with the Deaf community only after interacting with people in schools and programs for the deaf.


These learning spaces are important for the development of Deaf people because that is where they get to learn about their community, language, culture, and how to embrace their sense of identity.


2. deaf (with a lowercase ‘d’)


Gallaudet University in the United States gives the definition of deaf as:

Anyone who cannot understand speech (with or without hearing aids or other devices) using sound alone (i.e. no visual cues such as lipreading) is deaf.

The ‘lowercase d’ deaf is simply the medical and audiological definition for having hearing loss, which may differ in severity from one person to another.


A person’s loss of the ability to hear is not the only sign of being deaf though. There are many factors that play a part in defining deafness, such as environmental sounds.


The sociological and cultural definitions of the term are different from the medical and audiological definitions. People who are deaf (with a lowercase ‘d’) are often those who don’t identify themselves with the Deaf community, culture, beliefs, and norms. It is also most likely that they don’t use sign language as a means of communication and prefer to rely more on oral communication.


There are many reasons as to why a person with a degree of hearing loss chooses to identify themselves as deaf (with a lowercase ‘d’), and not as Deaf (with an uppercase ‘D’).


Not in all places of the world, there are spaces available for them to be familiarised about their culture and identity in a welcoming environment. Another major reason is their denial of hearing loss. Sometimes, when a deaf person is born into hearing families, their parents refuse to send them to schools and programs meant for the deaf. The lack of exposure to their community and culture in the hearing-dominated world ends up isolating them and makes them neglect their Deaf identity.


3. Hard of hearing


Hard of hearing is a widely-accepted term to describe someone with mild to moderate hearing loss.


Hard of hearing individuals may choose to use an auditory device, such as hearing aids, an FM system, cochlear implants, and/or other assistive listening devices to enhance their hearing.


Even though they may use hearing aids, that does not mean their hearing has suddenly been “cured” now. The quality of their hearing differs from day to day, or from one situation to another or not at all.


People who are hard of hearing are commonly known to not use sign language as their first or preferred language. This may be because they never got the chance to learn how to do signs, or they just prefer not to use it as a means of communication. As an alternative, or in addition, they may rely on lip-reading, use sign language interpreters, and/or captioning.


4. Hearing-impaired


The term “hearing-impaired” is often used to describe people with any degree of hearing loss, from mild to profound, including those who are D/deaf and those who are hard of hearing.


Many people in the Deaf and hard of hearing communities find that term to be offensive and demeaning. This is because there is a negative hidden meaning attached to the term, that is, “impaired”. They prefer “Deaf,” “deaf,” and “hard of hearing” because these terms have a more human, positive and accepting air to it than “hearing-impaired,” which comes across as meaning there is something inherently wrong in the person with hearing loss.


Did you know that Deaf people rely on sign language as a tool of communication? Learn about their language from here.

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