Charlie Swinbourne: Does the word ‘deaf’ need to be redefined?

Posted on April 23, 2012

This morning I was tweeted by Curtis Alcock, a partner in a Hearing Centre (where hearing aids and other services are provided) who has recently set up a web-based think tank called Audira – which is aimed at ‘developing an ongoing roadmap for the future of hearing care in the UK.’

He sent me (along with other individuals and organisations) a link to a thought-provoking article he has just written for the site called Why it’s imperative we redefine the word ‘deaf’ asking for my feedback.

In it, he argues that the word ‘deaf’ is being used to apply to such a wide range of people that it’s become a poorly-defined “catch all phrase” used to refer to a person with “a hearing level of 25dB on the one hand and 105dB on the other.”

He says: “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!”

In the industry in which Alcock works, a major issue (and business opportunity if tackled correctly) is the number of people who have lost some of their hearing, but refuse to do anything about it. Indeed, I was recently told by an audiologist that over 3 million people in the UK could benefit from hearing aids (as I do) but don’t wear them.

As Alcock notes, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines someone who is deaf as being “Wholly or partly without hearing.”

He goes on to say: “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.”

He argues that people with a slight reduction in their hearing resist the idea that they might be going deaf because they link deafness to a person using sign language and see this as being very different from them.

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 it affect my relationships, my job, my social life, my love of music?

Alcock’s proposal is that the definition of the word ‘deaf’ should refer to people “whose hearing range means they are unable to hear anything below a specified level… It needs to be of a level where an individual’s residual reduction in hearing leaves them at a disadvantage that requires the support of Society.”

He goes on to look at how the word ‘blind’ is used and suggests that the level of speech people can hear could be used as a barometer.

There’s a lot to agree and disagree with in Alcock’s article – which is partly the point. The article is aiming to prompt debate.

For starters, I’d disagree that the majority of people link deafness automatically to sign language users. I’d also disagree that most people see this as a negative – many people I meet think sign language is beautiful and are fascinated by it.

I think that deafness (and the stigma that comes with it) is more often seen as a sign of old age, of becoming less capable, of being more likely to become confused and not understand someone, leading to embarrassment, misunderstandings, and social awkwardness. Much like the portrayal of this deaf woman in Fawlty Towers (the clip is captioned).

This in my view is why so many people are reluctant to consider that they might be deaf. They don’t link themselves with what they think of as a deaf person. As Alcock states elsewhere in his article, being in denial creates a vicious circle: “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.”

Returning to the main focus of the article, there’s no denying that the word ‘deaf’ is often applied to a wide range of people, which can be confusing. However, one major omission from the article is the fact that a variety of descriptions are already used by deaf people to define themselves.

I most often describe myself as being ‘partially deaf’ and have previously described myself as ‘hard of hearing.’ That’s because to Deaf people I know, it’s a description that gives more of an indication of how deaf I am, as a hearing aid user for nearly 30 years who communicates through both spoken English and sign language.

I’m not sure that it’s solely the word ‘deaf’ that people have an issue with. Would asking someone if they were “becoming slightly hard of hearing” make a difference? Is the stigma related to one word, or for a range of ways of describing someone with some level of deafness?

Further, if the word ‘deaf’ was defined as applying to people who require the “support of society”, as Alcock argues, then the very word many deaf people use to describe themselves would imply dependence, rather than just a degree of deafness. Is there room for a positive approach, and the cultural model of deafness too?

More importantly in the context of the aim of the article, I’m not sure that this kind of change in the definition of the word ‘deaf’ to take on what I feel would be a more negative connotation would help more people accept their hearing loss and seek out their local hearing aid centre.

There’s also a big issue over where a line would be drawn on who was ‘deaf’ or not. If the ability to hear speech was used, what of people who are expert lipreaders? There are so many variables with deafness, that defining a person simply by how much they can hear would not necessarily be an indicator of how easily a person can communicate with a hearing person, which is what this approach seems to depend on.

My view is that the answer to a lot of the issues Alcock raises is not redefining a word, but is mentioned elsewhere within his article.

These sorts of changes in behaviour require understanding and kindness on the part of others and 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 support.

Simply put, Society requires what is sometimes referred to as ‘deaf awareness’ training.

The answer, I feel,  is not redefining the word ‘deaf,’ but increased education and awareness of what it means to be deaf in the terms in which it is defined and understood today.

That’s what will tackle the stigma that is linked to being deaf, and ultimately make more people who lose some of their hearing seek out the support that will help them – in the context of the lives they lead in the hearing world.

That’s my view, but there’s more in Alcock’s article to read and debate. So what do you think? Does the word ‘deaf’ need to be redefined? If so, what does the word mean to you? What should it mean? Read the article here and let us know what your views are.

By Charlie Swinbourne, Editor

The Limping Chicken is the world's most popular Deaf blog, and is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne. 

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