Deaf Awareness: The Many Ways to Be

Do deaf identity labels matter? Short answer: Yes, absolutely.

Image Source: Beth Maddeleni

Deaf, deaf, hard-of-hearing, late-deafened, person with hearing loss, hearing-impaired.

Which one is correct? Does it matter?

Indeed, it does matter! Identity and language are critical parts of human existence and the words we choose to use can make all the difference.

Being aware of different identity labels isn’t just important for allies and advocates. In fact, these identity labels can serve to empower people who experience deafness or hearing loss.

There is a myriad of ways to identify, but ultimately, there is no “right answer.” I. King Jordan, the first Deaf president of the only signing university in the Gallaudet University, once said, “There are many ways to be deaf.”

Former Gallaudet President I. King Jordan signing “can” during a lecture.

What Is Identity?

When we talk about identity, what are we really referring to?

Identity is defined as a complex and developing cognitive and social construct encompassing an array of characteristics or identity components that connect the person to specific social groups. Identity encompasses the memories, experiences, relationships, qualities, beliefs, personality, values, looks, or expressions that make a person or group’s sense of self.

In other words, identity refers to who or what you are, the way you think about yourself, the way you are viewed by the world, and the characteristics that define you.

Identity Development

Today, the studies on deaf identity development are rich and complex on what it means to be deaf. Researchers have discovered that the development of deaf identity was influenced by several factors, such as level of hearing, age of onset, educational background, communication methods, and cultural identity. Other influential factors, i.e., the family environment, the educational experience, and the mode of communication are critical on the impact of deaf identity development as well.

Perceptions of Deafness

When we think about perceptions of deafness in general, there is a spectrum of contrasting ideologies. On the one hand, there’s the physiological view that deafness is a disability that should be cured, and a deaf or hard-of-hearing person must learn to speak and interact with the overwhelming hearing majority. People who experience any form of deafness have the right to choose what they wish to be called.

On the other hand, the socio-cultural view considers deaf people as a minority group with its own language and culture.

How people “label” or identify themselves is personal and may reflect identification with the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, the degree to which they can hear, or the relative age of onset. In any case, people who experience any form of deafness have the right to choose what they wish to be called, either as a group or on an individual basis.

Upbringing and Familial Influence

Studies show that 92–97% of deaf children are born into hearing families. The findings of researcher Bat-Chava proved that “the deaf children whose parents are hearing or who grew up in homes where spoken language was the primary mode of communication will be likely to adopt the view of deafness as a disability and develop a culturally hearing identity”. In such family environments, the attitude of the parents towards their deaf child, and the language which they employ is influential in the development of their deaf identity. What’s important is that the child is loved and accepted.

If parents’ view of deafness is that of a disability, then typically sign language is forbidden in the family and these deaf children will stray farther away from deaf culture.

In contrast, if they view deafness as part of a cultural and lingual minority, they create an environment that is easier to identify themselves positively because of favorable language circumstances and higher acceptance of others.

For example, take the case of a deaf person who had a deaf-oral parent and a hearing parent, neither of which signed. Because they did not have contact with other deaf people and would exclusively communicate orally, they did not feel comfortable with their deafness.

The influence of familial ideals makes a case for the importance of early intervention. While it’s debatable that there isn’t one right way of raising a child who is born with any degree of deafness, it’s important that adequate resources and information are provided to the family to ensure that the child is loved and accepted.

Common Identity Labels

Over the years, the most commonly accepted terms have come to be “deaf,” “Deaf,” and “hard-of-hearing”.

It is important to acknowledge each of these identities to improve awareness, understanding, and respect of Deaf culture consequently changing the views of deafness from disability to a socio-cultural perception.

Deaf: To those that identify with the term, “Deaf,” this label highlights the cultural and linguistic characteristics that differentiate it from the hearing community. The relationship Deaf people have with their sign language — American Sign Language (ASL) — the culture, and the education experience, shared amongst themselves is strong in relation to the larger society.

You’ll notice there’s a captial D in “Deaf.” This wasn’t a mistake, rather it’s intentional and refers to those that share identification with Deaf culture and American Sign Language.

deaf: When the lower-case d is with the term “deaf,” that typically refers to the audiological condition. Folks who use this term may not necessarily identify with or even have been exposed to Deaf culture or heritage, or even use sign language. There are a myriad of reasons one may identify this way and not all deaf people have the same exact definition.

Hard-of-hearing: “Hard-of-hearing” can signify a person with a mild-to-moderate hearing loss or a deaf person who doesn’t have/want any cultural affiliation with the Deaf community or a combination of both. Hard-of-hearing people can be allies of the Deaf community, they can choose to participate in the social, cultural, political, and legal life of the community or live their lives completely within the limits of the hearing world.

While it’s important to be aware of these common labels, there are many still to be aware of and sensitive to.

Late-Deafened: Another term that some people identify themselves as “late-deafened.” People that use this term to define themselves may have been born hearing and navigated their entire lives in the hearing world. Due to sickness, trauma, or age, they became deaf later in life.

People with Hearing Loss: Some people believe that the term “people with hearing loss” is inclusive and efficient. However, some people who were born deaf or hard-of-hearing do not think of themselves as having lost their hearing. We distinguish them from those who find themselves losing their hearing because of illness, trauma, or age.

Hearing Impaired: Now, let’s talk about the term “hearing impaired.” There are many different views on the use of this word. It was previously the most commonly used term to identify deaf and hard-of-hearing folks and even considered “politically correct.” Many physicians and health professionals still use this term. However, according to the NAD, this term is no longer accepted and may even be considered offensive in the Deaf community:

“It establishes the standard as ‘hearing’ and anything different as ‘impaired,’ or substandard, hindered, or damaged. It implies that something is not as it should be and ought to be fixed if possible.”

There are some folks who still use this term to identify themselves- and that’s their right! Rule of thumb: avoid using the term “hearing impaired” unless specified otherwise.

In general, when interacting with folks in the community, be willing to be open to start a dialogue and ask the person how they identify. Who knows- you may learn a lot!

Communication and Access

Identity and communication access go hand-in-hand. When children are raised according to the limitations of each of the labels, it can also influence the way they learn to communicate or receive information. Social perceptions and expectations influence policy and education. For example, many schools receive funding to provide speech therapy, but the same isn’t offered for sign language education.

As we know it, there are many ways to communicate with those who experience any form of deafness:

  • Closed or real-time captioning, like Ava provides
  • American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter
  • Text phones or video relay services
  • Written memos and company communications
  • Visual emergency notifications
  • Changes in workspace arrangements

In any situation, it’s important that we respect the identity label that someone chooses to identify with, as well as their preference for communication and accessibility.

National Deaf Awareness Month

September is National Deaf Awareness Month. Throughout this month, we celebrate the accomplishments of people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing.

Here are some ways you can celebrate and empower those around you:

  • spread awareness
  • reach out to companies and governments to encourage them to fulfill their legal obligations to accessibility
  • support deaf businesses
  • donate to deaf-based charities
  • volunteer with deaf organizations
  • encourage, advocate, and promote deaf people in their own culture and community

Celebrating our differences, as well as our common interests, helps to understand other’s perspectives, to broaden our own, and to fully experience and educate ourselves.

For more information about Ava’s accessibility solutions, click here.