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Deafness Terminology & Myths

Florida Coordinating Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

Terminology Question & Answer: 

What is Wrong with the Use of these Terms: "Deaf-mute", "Deaf and dumb", or "Hearing-impaired"?

Deaf and hard of hearing people have the right to choose what they wish to be called, either as a group or on an individual basis. Overwhelmingly, deaf and hard of hearing people prefer to be called "deaf" or "hard of hearing". Nearly all organizations of the deaf use the term "deaf and hard of hearing", and the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) is no exception. The World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) voted in 1991 to use "deaf and hard of hearing" as an official designation.

Yet there are many people who persist in using terms other than "deaf" and "hard of hearing". The alternative terms are often seen in print, heard on radio and television, and picked up in casual conversations all over. Let's take a look at the three most-used alternative terms.

Deaf and Dumb—A relic from the medieval English era, this is the granddaddy of all negative labels pinned on deaf and hard of hearing people. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, pronounced us "deaf and dumb", because he felt that deaf people were incapable of being taught, of learning, and of reasoned thinking. To his way of thinking, if a person could not use his/her voice in the same way as hearing people, then there was no way that this person could develop cognitive abilities. (Source: Deaf Heritage, by Jack Gannon, 1980)

In later years, "dumb" came to mean "silent". This definition still persists, because that is how people see deaf people. The term is offensive to deaf and hard of hearing people for a number of reasons. One, deaf and hard of hearing people are by no means "silent" at all. They use sign language, lip-reading, vocalizations, and so on to communicate. Communication is not reserved for hearing people alone, and using one's voice is not the only way to communicate. Two, "dumb" also has a second meaning: stupid. Deaf and hard of hearing people have encountered plenty of people who subscribe to the philosophy that if you cannot use your voice well, you don't have much else "upstairs", and have nothing going for you. Obviously, this is incorrect, ill-informed, and false. Deaf and hard of hearing people have repeatedly proved that they have much to contribute to the society at large.

Deaf-Mute—Another offensive term from the 18th-19th century, "mute" also means silent and without voice. This label is technically inaccurate, since deaf and hard of hearing people generally have functioning vocal chords. The problem lies with the fact that to successfully modulate your voice, you need to be able to hear your own voice. Again, because deaf and hard of hearing people use various methods of communication other than using their voices, they are not truly mute. True communication occurs when one's message is understood by others, and they can respond in kind.

Hearing-impaired—A term much preferred by hearing people, largely because they view it as politically correct. In the mainstream society, to boldly state one's disability (e.g., deaf, blind, etc.) is somewhat rude and impolite. To their way of thinking, it is far better to soften the harsh reality by using the word "impaired" along with "visual", "hearing", and so on. "hearing-impaired" is a well-meaning word that is much-resented by deaf and hard of hearing people.

Deaf and hard of hearing people feel that the words "deaf" and "hard of hearing" are not negative in any way at all. Indeed, the deaf and hard of hearing community views "hearing-impaired" as negative, because the label focuses on what they can't do. With this label, a standard has been set: the "hearing" standard. To be anything other than "hearing" is not acceptable to the mainstream society, and deaf and hard of hearing people have failed to meet the "standard". To be fair, this is probably what hearing people did not intend to convey to deaf and hard of hearing people every time they use "hearing impaired" as a label. Deaf and hard of hearing people believe that there is nothing wrong with them, and that their culture, language, and community are just as fulfilling as the ones experienced by the mainstream society.

What's in a name? Plenty! Words and labels can have a profound effect on people. Deaf and hard of hearing people are sensitive as to how they are referred, because they have experienced being put down and disparaged by other people. They have seen their intelligence, their abilities, and their skills questioned simply because they are deaf or hard of hearing. Show your respect for deaf and hard of hearing people by refusing to use those outdated and offensive terms.

Hearing Loss Myths 

  • All deaf people sign - Not true.  It is estimated that only 10% of persons with hearing loss use sign language as their primary method of communication.
  • Deaf people cannot speak - Not true.  Many people who are deaf do speak.  Many persons who are deaf choose not to speak, not because they can't speak, but because they realize they lack the hearing necessary to regulate the sound of their voices.  
  • All deaf people read lips - Not true.  People with hearing and vision loss may be unable to speech read.  Even the best speech reader only catches about 25% - 30% of what is said.
  • A deaf person will hear you if they really want to and if you just shout loud enough - Not true.  Shouting distorts the speakers face and makes it much more difficult for the person who is deaf to speech read their lips.  Additionally, it can cause pain to the speaker, while doing nothing to enhance the deaf person's understanding.
  • Lip reading or writing notes can be used in place of getting a sign language interpreter - not true.  Persons whose primary method of communication is sign language may be limited in their written English ability.  Sign language is NOT English and has no written equivalent in the English language.

Person-first Deafness Terminology  

Appropriate Terms
  • Person/Someone Who Is Deaf
  • Person/Someone Who Is Hard of Hearing
  • Person/Someone Who Is Late-Deafened
  • Person/Someone Who Is Deaf-Blind
  • People/Someone with hearing loss
  • Family with a member who is deaf or hard of hearing
Inappropriate Terms
  • Deaf Mute
  • Deaf & Dumb
Terms Still In Use But No Longer Preferred
  • Hearing Impaired
  • Hearing Impairment