Charlie Swinbourne: Hearing impaired? Hard of hearing? It’s hard to find the right term to ‘deafine’ yourself. I should know

Posted on September 27, 2013

Mark Levin’s article on this site last week about eradicating the term ‘hearing impaired’ clearly struck a chord – it was viewed over 10,000 times within 24 hours and became this site’s 7th most viewed article ever (and it’s still rising).

Levin argued that “the term ‘impaired’ implies something is wrong and needs to be fixed.” His article ended by asking, when hearing people struggle to communicate with deaf people, who the ‘impaired’ people really are?

The article got dozens of comments, with many being supportive of Levin’s argument, while some, predictably, asked what the problem was – because they thought ‘impairment’ was about right. If Levin’s article drew on the cultural model of deafness and disability, you could argue that those comments came from the opposite angle – the medical model.

What was interesting were several comments that fell in between the two – from deaf people saying that they themselves use the term.

For example, one said: “I don’t have a problem with being called “hearing impaired”, I much prefer that term which is self explanatory rather than “hard of hearing” which I can’t stand.”

Another commenter added: “Interesting article – but I personally use hearing impaired myself as saying that I am deaf gives people the impression that I cannot talk or hear at all, which is wrong.”

This is a reminder that however strongly we feel about a term and the impression it might give, it’s still up to deaf people themselves to decide how they would like to be ‘deafined,’ based on their own personal experiences.

I’ve never described myself as being ‘hearing impaired,’ but I had my own brush with the term a couple of years ago, when an article I had written was published with an introductory paragraph describing me as being ‘hearing impaired.’

The first I knew of the inclusion of the term – because the introduction was written by a sub editor – was when I went on Twitter to find several angry tweets from deaf people who felt offended.

Now, I knew for a fact that the sub editor hadn’t intended any harm, so I defended the site I’d written for. I also said, in my responses to the tweeters, that I didn’t feel offended. And I didn’t. Until then, I hadn’t seen any negative connotations to the term ‘hearing impaired.’

This was mainly due to familiarity. I’d grown up around so many different terms for deafness, and this was just another one, that seemed ‘normal.’ It was only when I spent time thinking about it that I could understand why some people were against it.

Nowadays, I would not use the term to describe myself or anybody else who is deaf. Like Levin, I see it as feeling more negative than any term around deafness should be.

I also know that deaf people are not alone in moving away from the term. Indeed, an arts organisation for blind people recently started using ‘partially sighted’ instead of the term ‘visually impaired.’

However, I also believe in personal choice. If a deaf person wants to describe themselves as ‘hearing impaired,’ and it works for them, as it clearly does for those two commenters, then I respect that, because I know from my own experience how hard it is to find a term you are comfortable with to describe your deaf identity.

When I was at school, I would often describe myself (and was mostly described by the learning support department) as simply being ‘deaf.’ That worked fine in a completely hearing environment.

But when I was in my early 20s, and first mixed with deaf people of my own age, I started to be told – as a joke that drew on some element of truth in how people saw me – that I wasn’t really ‘deaf’ at all. The more I heard the ‘joke,’ the more I realised what the subtext was.

What they meant was that I wasn’t ‘deaf’ like they were deaf.

The people who said this to me were usually profoundly deaf, while I am classed as being moderate to severely deaf. They communicated in sign language all the time, but while I would use sign language, I would also use speech, lipreading and listening too.

I soon realised that describing myself as ‘deaf’ in this company caused eyebrows to be raised. So, responding to this, I started describing myself as being ‘hard of hearing.’ I found (like the commenters on Levin’s article) that people I met understood more accurately how deaf I was when I used that term.

Although this worked, I later realised that ‘hard of hearing’ wasn’t seen all that positively either, and I settled on using the term ‘partially deaf.’

‘Partially deaf’ felt much more positive, more close to being ‘me’ than anything I’d used before. It conveyed that I wasn’t completely deaf, but also said who I was, too.

I wasn’t ‘partially hearing,’ I didn’t have ‘hearing loss’. I was partially deaf. And proud of it.

Nowadays, I nearly always use that term if I’m describing my deafness in person, although now I also describe myself as being ‘deaf’ (on this site, for example) and, a few years down the line, I feel comfortable doing so.

What I’m getting at (thank you all for your patience in getting this far) is that, for many of us, finding a way of describing, or indeed ‘deafining’ your deaf identity is a tricky thing to do.

We need more debate, and more fantastic articles like Levin’s, that make an argument about what certain terms imply, and whether they are acceptable, one way or another, to help us all figure out the term or terms that best suit us.

But we need to be cautious too. As the comments on Levin’s article showed, terms are not clear cut, and not all deaf people find a given term offensive.

So while we should embrace the debate, we should be careful not to take offence too easily, or assume that the argument is cut and dried, because for many of us, there are no easy answers when it comes to deciding how to ‘deafine’ ourselves.

Charlie Swinbourne is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being a journalist and award-winning scriptwriter. He writes for the Guardian and BBC Online, and as a scriptwriter, penned the films My Song, Coming Out and Four Deaf Yorkshiremen.

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