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Sunday, 22 April 2012 16:46

Why it's imperative we redefine the word ‘deaf’

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Two people pointing at each otherHow would you define the word 'deaf'?

The question is immensely important because how we answer it has a direct effect on our messages, which in turn affect Society's attitudes towards hearing care. The problem is that we are currently using the term ambiguously, which leads to mixed messages and confusion – both of which are counterproductive.

Let me explain.

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines deaf primarily as:

“Wholly or partly without hearing.”

So we see there are two parts to the definition. Wholly without hearing we can understand: we simply think of it as being the auditory equivalent of being blind.

But how on earth do we define “partly without hearing”?

Where do we start? Just how much hearing does someone need to be ‘without’ before we consider them to be ‘deaf’?

Let's take a moment to think this question through, together with its implications.

  • Possibility 1
    Deaf means anything other than ‘normal’ hearing (whatever ‘normal’ might be).
  • Possibility 2
    Deaf means unable to hear anything below a specified level.

Possibility 1 is how the word 'deaf' tends to be used today by both professionals and members of the public (and remember the public tend to take their lead on these matters from the professionals). So in this definition, ‘deaf’ is being used as a catch-all phrase.

But such a definition is fraught with problems.

The problem with using ‘deaf’ as a catch-all phrase

If ‘deaf’ simply means “anything other than normal hearing” we are using one word to cover everything from the person who might be having the occasional problem in noisy environments to someone whose effective hearing range requires them to use sign language as their primary means of communication.

We are using the same term to describe a hearing level of 25dB on the one hand and 105dB on the other; it's a difference in hearing levels of around 256 times! The effect is different! The experience is different! The needs are different! Yet we are using the same word!

With a catch-all deaf-inition everyone loses

When we use ‘deaf’ as a ‘catch all’ term in this way, everyone loses.

Imagine you have a slight reduction in your hearing range so you're missing some of the higher pitched sounds (such as the [s], [f] and [th] sounds). You look over at someone whose hearing range is limited to the extent that they are using sign language to communicate. Realistically, when you compare yourself to that person do you honestly consider yourself to be ‘deaf’ too?

It's highly unlikely – because in comparison to the person using sign language as their primary language, you think to yourself "there's really not much wrong with my hearing. My hearing is practically ‘normal’".

So if someone such as a friend or family member were to suggest you were ‘going deaf’, you're going to find yourself comparing your hearing ability with that of the person using sign language to see if what's being said of you is true.

Going deaf’ – a hearing person sees it as a threat to be avoided

You'll be thinking, “If I'm going deaf, is that how I'm going to end up, without hearing and using sign language?” As someone who is used to being part of ‘the hearing community’, that's something you will consider a threat. You'll be thinking, how will affect my relationships, my job, my social life, my love of music?

Social psychology teaches us that when a threat is too great, we ignore it – possibly as means of self-protection; possibly because we don't think it applies to us1.

So your ‘avoid’ reaction kicks in to protect how you see yourself and your place in the world.

Strengthening negative attitude => inaction

Chances are you would even attempt to PROVE that ‘going deaf’ doesn't apply to you by carrying on as if everything is as it always has been. So you wouldn't have your hearing tested. Why would you? You haven't had it tested before, have you? And if you start having your hearing tested now, surely it would suggest you might actually be worried there really is some truth in the allegation that you are ‘going deaf’. (And we don't like to be proved wrong, do we?)

And you're certainly not going to consider the idea of getting a hearing aid because “I've never needed one before. Why do I need one now?”

Our inaction affects everyone else

No matter how natural this reaction might be (and it is a natural reaction), it unfortunately doesn't just affect you. It affects those around you. They'll misinterpret your quiet refusal to do something about your hearing as stubbornness or pride. Every time you mishear something because you've not done something about it, it will reinforce their own certainty that you are ‘going deaf’. It's one of those vicious circles.

And thus a stereotype is reinforced

Meanwhile what's perceived as your stubbornness as a ‘deaf person’ and the frustration you cause those around you become unfortunately transferred to all ‘deaf people’. Because that's what we do as humans: we categorise things based on what we've experienced ourselves. This process of categorisation has a lot to do with where stereotypes come from.

The irony is that by attempting to avoid being seen as deaf (because of what ‘being deaf’ means to you), you have inadvertently reinforced the stereotype of being deaf.

All this arises because our definition of being ‘deaf’ is currently far too broad.

So that's how using ‘deaf’ as a catch-all term affects individuals who should be taking action for a reduction in their hearing range. These individuals could very easily do something to overcome their hearing difficulties but instead they impose the effect of those difficulties on those around them, requiring others to change their normal course of behaviour to compensate for their own inaction.

A knock-on effect for those who need Society's practical understanding

Sadly this inaction of people who could improve their hearing has a direct negative effect on ‘deaf people’ at the opposite end of the current definition spectrum: those whose hearing range is limited to the extent that they are put at a disadvantage in core society even if they are wearing hearing aids or else cannot wear hearing aids. Core society becomes harder for these individuals to access because the assumption of society is "everyone hears" and so it gears itself around this belief (e.g. public address announcements, paying for goods in a shop, public talks etc)

So for these individuals there are going to be situations where no matter how good hearing technology is, no matter how much effort they invest in listening strategies, they will still need the practical understanding of those around them who take the presence of hearing for granted. Whether it's their co-operation in speaking more slowly and distinctly, or facing them when speaking with them, or moving positions at a dinner table, or repeating themselves using alternative wording, or providing visual alternatives.

Incidentally, a "hearing person" who didn't know sign language would likewise need to be shown practical understanding if they attended a venue hosted by the Deaf community. It's about finding ways to connect with one another.

The need for understanding and kindness

Whenever we require OTHER PEOPLE to change their normal course of behaviour in order to accommodate us, it requires understanding and kindness on the part of other. Such openness to the perspectives of others is the mark of an enlightened society. But it also requires educating Society, because sometimes Society simply doesn't know any better; sometimes Society just doesn't know what to do to demonstrate that practical understanding.

That's why Society requires what is sometimes referred to as ‘deaf awareness’ training.

The self-made dilemma

But have you noticed the dilemma here?

At one end of the definition spectrum we have individuals who should be taking responsibility for their reduction in hearing range but instead unfairly rely on Society to compensate for their own inaction and lack of acceptance of the problem. But at the other end of the definition spectrum we have individuals who genuinely need the practical understanding of Society because their residual reduction in hearing leaves them at a disadvantage.

Our Messages: Mixed, Confused, Counterproductive

This is really, really important for us to grasp!

Because we're currently using the SAME TERM to describe both groups of people with completely separate needs, the individuals who actually need Society's practical understanding (e.g. with a severe or profound reduction in their hearing range) aren't getting it because Society is wrongly assuming that it's up to these individuals to “do something about their hearing” or “try harder” because they know ‘deaf people’ who “have a problem with their hearing but just won't do anything about it.”

By contrast those who should be taking responsibility for their reduction in hearing (i.e. those who could do something to improve it) are wrongly assuming that it's up to Society to "support" them because they've heard that Society should show more understanding and kindness for deaf people: they're using this as an excuse for inaction.

That's why our ‘deaf’ messages are mixed, confusing and counterproductive.

We need to REDEFINE what the word ‘deaf’ means. By "redefine", we don't mean "not use the word". We mean use it in a way that does not lead to confusion through ambiguity.

Redefining the word ‘Deaf’

This brings us onto Possibility 2: the definition for ‘deaf’ should be restricted to those whose hearing range means they are unable to hear anything below a specified level.

But what should that specified level be?

It needs to be of a level where an individual's residual reduction in hearing range leaves them at a disadvantage within a society where hearing is assumed to be present.

Deaf: a signal to Society

In other words, we should be using the term ‘deaf’ as a signal to those who assume the presence of hearing, a signal that they need to demonstrate kindness and understanding by changing their own normal course of behaviour in order to facilitate the ‘deaf’ person's participation as fully as their own.

To put it another way, being ‘deaf’ is:

The point at which responsibility for hearing difficulties (within the context of a social group that assumes the presence of hearing) shifts from the individual with the reduction in hearing range to the rest of the social group.

What we can learn from the term ‘blind’

It is interesting to note that the word ‘blind’ already has a clarified definition, with legally blind being described as follows:

“In North America and most of Europe, legal blindness is defined as visual acuity (vision) of 20/200 (6/60) or less in the better eye with best correction possible. A legally blind individual would have to stand 20 feet (6.1m) from an object to see it—with corrective lenses —with the same degree of clarity as a normally sighted person could from 200 feet (61m).” Wikipedia

Whilst we cannot directly compare sight with hearing, it is certainly helpful to have a quantitive cut-off point for when someone is considered ‘blind’ “to determine which people may need special assistance because of their visual disabilities” Wikipedia.

A quantitive cut-off point for ‘deaf’

I would suggest we use a non-amplified Speech Intelligibility Index of 0% as our own starting point, i.e. speech is inaudible without the use of hearing aids. Or below 40% with hearing aids. But perhaps you have your own comments, suggestions or exceptions for such a definition (login).

So let's start putting our collective heads together! But let's always have in our mind the overriding objective here. We are not redefining for the sake of it or for any reasons of political correctness.

We're doing this to ensure that we are using our language appropriately in order to modernise attitudes to hearing and deafness: We want a Society where people do everything they can to keep their own hearing working at its optimum, and confident that the rest of Society will demonstrate practical understanding them should a residual reduction in their hearing put them at a disadvantage.

So what about Deaf Awareness Week?

This brings us finally to the issue of Deaf Awareness Week, which runs in the UK every year (there may be similar initiatives in other countries).

Should the purpose of Deaf Awareness Week be to get people to recognise problems with their own hearing? Or should it be to educate society to better support deaf people? Or both? There often seems to be some confusion amongst those participating in the event's activities as to its purpose.

Well the answer is this:

If we want our messages to be most effective, Deaf Awareness Week cannot be about both. Otherwise we're telling people to, “Get your hearing checked so we can discover you're deaf”. There is nothing more likely to trigger an avoid reaction!

No, keep Deaf Awareness Week for educating society to better support (our newly defined) deaf people.

Then use a separate week focusing on getting the best out of your hearing through routine hearing checks, hearing protection and the use of hearing technology to fill in any gaps in your hearing range. Call it Hearing Awareness Week or something, but don't use the word ‘deaf’ or deal with ‘deaf awareness’ issue during this week or we will isolate the people we are trying to reach. Keep the two issues separate; because they are. Confusing the two is one of the barriers holding back attitudes from changing.

What do YOU think?

I would be particularly interested to hear from you if you consider yourself deaf, or if you've been described as deaf but do not think it applies to you, or if you personally know or work with ‘deaf’ people.

1. See: Ditto, Munro, Apanovitch, Scepansky, & Lockhart, 2003. Rogers & Prentice-Dunn, 1997.

(This article has been modified in response to comments from others)

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Curtis Alcock

Curtis J. Alcock is Founder of Audira » Think Tank for Hearing.

He was involved in design and marketing for 12 years before making the transition into hearing care nearly 12 years ago. He now runs an independent family-run hearing care practice in the United Kingdom and has spoken internationally on shaping the future of hearing care.


  • Comment Link Tuesday, 24 April 2012 10:20 posted by cyril collier

    Once upon a time I met a guy at hole in the wall (bank) he got my attention and asked me a question, I said and pointed at ears saying Totally Deaf, he pointed at his hearing aids and said " So am i" huh!! Im thinking what! I gave up trying to explain, only he walked off and when he was few hundred yds away I said 2Have a nice Day" he turned round I lip read him say thank you..

    Now if that were me I wouldnt of turned round, because I wouldnt of heard it,Simple really D eaf (Totally) and d severe H.O.H.

  • Comment Link Tuesday, 24 April 2012 10:15 posted by cyril collier

    I find this simple myself, As I was once d eaf totally in L ear and hearing aid in R ear, so was classed as profoundly deaf as it was a struggle, but I accepted d eaf.

    Now things have changed Im now Totally Deaf, i.e Cant hear anything at all, nothing to hear with, ear canals been skin grafted over, there isnt anything to see.

    I had Cochlear Implant that failed and was extracted, now if that had worked I would of then classed myself severe H.O.H d eaf.

    But it didnt I have nothing in ears to look at, So Obviously for me Im Totally D eaf. 2 d's D eaf and d eaf 1 for Totally no partials Totally Deaf, and d eaf for severe hearing problem, people who were given adaptations to help them hear, why were they given if they didnt work? I feel a few like to be deaf, I myself doesnt like it, but hey I get on best I can.. so to end its D and d, this cannot be forgotten or thrown away, I know Totally deaf is rare but WE are around...

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