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Woke to Deaf?

We live in a time of heightened sensitivity to identity, and this is true not only in terms of gender and orientation, but also in areas that were once called “disabilities.” That term doesn’t easily apply if a person has found workarounds that have become arguably superior to the human norms. Can the runner with prosthetic blade legs run faster than other runners? Is he or she disabled, then? Is American Sign Language a more poetic and artistic form of communication than simple chat among the hearing?

Do such skills, hard earned, admit a person into a community that has some right to feel superior and certainly not disabled? Hearing impaired? Does that label make any more sense than to call me, a hearing person, ASL-impaired? When you’re watching a couple of seated senators arguing in the U.S. Capitol as they wait for the State of the Union address to begin, don’t you wish you could know what they are saying? Lip readers know — it’s like a superpower. I’m lip-reading-impaired. Also, I can’t outrun a gazelle, like some people.

So let’s drop the hearing-impaired label. It was useful in the 1960s and ‘70s, as a first step toward recognizing the humanity of people. But we’re past that now. Older Americans, especially if they have partial hearing, might prefer to be described as “hard of hearing,” but, otherwise, people—especially younger people generally prefer being called deaf. They might like a capital D on that Deaf if they identify with the Deaf community, where ASL, lip reading and other skills — like really paying attention to everything with ninja-like Zen perfection — are points of pride and are the ingredients of an intimate community that can feel closer than the rest of us feel in our families. Of course, not all deaf people are part of that community, and some want to identify in different ways. We all get to choose the worlds we want to belong to. Like the Little Mermaid.

Want a second opinion? The National Association of the Deaf states: “For many people, the words deaf and hard of hearing are not negative. Instead, the term hearing impaired is viewed as negative. The term focuses on what people can’t do. 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.”

Also, The National Center on Disability and Journalism, an important part of Cronkite since 2008, recommends against using the term “hearing-impaired” without discussing it first with the individual. Also the Associated Press Style Book recommends using deaf to describe total hearing loss and partial hearing loss to describe, well, partial hearing loss. Hearing impaired is not one of the recommended uses.

We are talking about human beings, so of course the same size does not fit all, and it changes from country to country. UK disability activist Jennie Williams, for example, says she doesn’t identify much with Deaf culture and wants people to understand that she can hear; she prefers the term “hearing impairment” for her situation.

Another thing to keep in mind: It is inappropriate to ask a stranger how much they can hear. If they can’t hear you, they’ll let you know how to communicate with them.

My own thinking on this topic has certainly changed, and time, country and culture may continue to change the way our language evolves. The best practice, if a person’s disability or cultural identity is important to a story, is to figure out what term the person would like to be used.