Hard of hearing vs. hearing impairment: Why inclusive language matters
'Identifying as hard of hearing is an assertion of my autonomy'
It has been over a year since I suddenly lost my hearing due to Ramsay Hunt syndrome. I’ve had to adjust to wearing a hearing aid and frequently asking people, “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?” in environments with a lot of background noise.
But I’ve also learned to embrace and be vocal about the fact that I’m “hard of hearing”—it’s the term I prefer because the focus is on me as a person who has hearing difficulties rather than other outdated, offensive terms that imply I’m lacking something.
“Hard of hearing” is neutral, while “hearing-impaired” emphasizes limitations rather than capabilities. From my perspective, using “hearing” as the standard and categorizing anything different as “impaired” implies that those who are Deaf or hard of hearing are somehow hindered. The term inadvertently suggests that hearing is the norm, and any deviation from it is a deficiency that needs to be corrected.
Shifting to 'people-first' language
The Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), founded in 1979, has been instrumental in reshaping the language, using people-first language like “a person with hearing loss,” said Barbara Kelley, the organization’s executive director.
“The term ‘hearing impaired’ is primarily used in audiology, but it has emerged over the years. … Over time, members of the Deaf community have expressed that they don’t feel impaired; they don’t see themselves as needing to be fixed. This perspective is anecdotal but significant,” Kelley said.
The phrase “hard of hearing” was coined to express that people may need assistance without implying impairment, Kelley explained. As time passed, the language has continued to evolve.
“Over the years, our writing has undergone a transformation, particularly in how journalists address people with disabilities. We have moved away from terms like ‘afflicted with’ or ‘suffering,’ recognizing that such language does not accurately represent individuals' experiences,” Kelley explained.
Fostering empathy toward people with hearing loss
Inclusive language is pivotal in reshaping perspectives and fostering empathy toward people facing hearing loss. Kelley pointed out that hearing loss often leads people to withdraw and isolate themselves, making even family gatherings a challenging ordeal. “This isolation can be emotionally draining, with loneliness, depression, and anxiety emerging.”
As awareness grows, leaders like Kelley pave the way for a more empathetic and accommodating discourse. This evolution resonates with me, as I too have evolved in how I think and feel about my hearing loss.
For months, my situation made it challenging to engage in conversations, especially in larger gatherings at networking events. I would discreetly position myself to the left side of a person, utilizing my right ear to improve my hearing ability. I frequently asked others to repeat what they said, leading to embarrassment and frustration about my hearing deficit. Despite these challenges, I clung to a glimmer of hope, believing that my hearing would eventually fully return.
Embracing a changed identity
I began recovering from Ramsay Hunt syndrome but it became evident that I wouldn’t fully regain my hearing, and I remained at a nearly 30-percent hearing-loss deficit in my left ear. That’s when I came across the term “hard of hearing,” which struck a chord. I began to embrace my new reality. The phrase feels more encompassing and empowering, acknowledging that I may have challenges with hearing but emphasizing that I am still whole. “Hard of hearing” allows me to celebrate my strengths and accomplishments while being candid about my hearing condition.
Beyond personal preference, I have also noticed how “hard of hearing” influences how others perceive me. When I introduce myself as hard of hearing, I notice a shift in how people interact with me. There is often more understanding and patience, and others are more likely to accommodate my needs without judgment. It fosters an environment of inclusivity and empathy, allowing for more meaningful and authentic connections.
'I notice a shift in how people interact with me'
I’ve never used the term “hearing impaired” to describe my condition because I worry that people could see my hearing loss as a barrier to effective communication with me. This misinterpretation can create unnecessary obstacles in personal and professional interactions, hindering the opportunity for genuine connection and collaboration.
Taking hearing protection seriously
Choosing to be identified as hard of hearing doesn’t mean denying the challenges I face. It acknowledges my reality while maintaining a positive and proactive mindset. Case in point: A recent vacation to Maho Beach in Saint Martin, where planes fly directly overhead. Despite the beauty of the beach and the excitement of witnessing airplanes land and take off mere feet away, I had to be extra careful due to my hearing loss. I wore earplugs and noise-canceling headphones to protect my ears from the loud aircraft noise.
My preparation reminded me that embracing my identity as hard of hearing also means taking proactive measures to safeguard my residual hearing and well-being. It was a stark reminder that being hard of hearing isn’t merely about a label or a term; it’s about recognizing the importance of safeguarding my senses and taking charge of my experience in the world.
Identifying as hard of hearing is an assertion of my autonomy, a declaration that I define myself, not my hearing loss. It represents resilience, adaptability, and a commitment to advocating for inclusivity. Through my journey, I’ve learned that the power of language extends beyond semantics; it shapes perceptions and attitudes toward hearing loss.
Emphasize strengths and capabilities
My journey as a hard-of-hearing person has taught me the importance of advocating for myself, protecting my hearing, and embracing a term that reflects the positivity and strength inherent in this identity. The phrase “hearing impaired” may not have been intended to offend, but its implications can perpetuate misconceptions and undermine the empowering spirit of those navigating hearing challenges.
Ultimately, language plays a significant role in shaping perceptions and attitudes. By using more neutral or affirming terms like “deaf” or “hard of hearing,” we can avoid unintentionally stigmatizing individuals and promote an inclusive and respectful discourse around hearing differences. Emphasizing the strengths and capabilities of those with hearing variations fosters a more understanding and accepting society for everyone.
Editors' note: Healthy Hearing sometimes uses "hearing impaired" or "hearing impairment" in articles, usually in reference to educational and governmental programs that use those terms.