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Time for Change

Rethinking the Term ‘Hearing Impaired’

Bennett, ReBecca

doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000559500.67179.7d
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Ms. Bennett is the Deaf/Hard of Hearing outreach coordinator at the disAbility Resource Center in Fredericksburg, Virginia. She put forth the bill to remove the words “hearing-impaired” from Virginia's state laws.

Sound, to most people, is synonymous with the ears. For those of us who are deaf or hard of hearing, sound has a different meaning than ears drawing sound and the brain processing it. For me, sound is a multisensory experience. The deaf brain uses all senses to determine sound. We “hear” differently, but we are not impaired. As such, we need to reconsider the wide use of the term “hearing impaired” to reflect on our difference, but not a false disability.

Some people reading this might think it is a foolish concern to change the label “hearing impaired” to hard of hearing. They may think what deaf people experience is in fact an impairment. However, I argue that one cannot miss what one has never had. When we focus on people who are prelingually deaf and hard-of-hearing, the word “impaired” is not an accurate description.

The term “hearing impaired” suggests that deaf people's lack of hearing is a pathological condition that needs to be fixed. Many Deaf people lead rich, productive lives and are not looking to be cured. We are proud to be deaf and part of Deaf culture.1-6

The term “hearing impaired” can be compared with the word “snowflake,” which has had a rough ride in society. Snowflake can suggest something delicate, pure, and refreshing that brings the promise of newness and hope. However, it's also used as a derogatory term to demean anyone who thinks differently or is different from the norms of society. What was once non-offensive has become offensive.

Notably, the term “hearing impaired” was never a pretty word within the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community. It is a label that the hearing community uses to describe our differences. There is also an assumption among those with normal hearing that Deaf people would naturally want to take advantage of any method that could lead them to the hearing world.7 In reality, that assumption is far from the truth.8

In 2017, Utah became the first U.S. state to change all hearing impaired references in their state laws. New Hampshire and New York followed suit, with a gentle nudge from the National Association of the Deaf (NAD). With Virginia being the original location of the country's first Deaf school (The Cobbs School) that was founded in 1815, I felt that Virginians like myself should also step up and make a change. With this mindset, I began my campaign to change the way Virginians perceive the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community. After arduous research and preparation, I contacted different state organizations for the Deaf to ask them how they perceived such terminology. I knew I couldn't be in the minority. Three states had already solidified my determination. Finally, I took my campaign to Virginia Delegate Robert M. (Bob) Thomas Jr., and six months later, the bill became a law.

Imagine a world where you, the reader, couldn't speak the language of the community. You can walk, work, love, laugh, and do everything else—except speak the same language. Like everyone else, you take pride in who you are, where you have been, and what you will become. You take pride in your language even though it is not the same language as the majority of the community. Does this mean you are impaired, weakened, or damaged? No. It just means you speak a different language. You can adapt, but it does not mean you need to be labeled as subordinate.

In a general sense, calling someone impaired is cruel and unwarranted. A person becomes stigmatized “[when he or she is] reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one.”9

“Hearing impaired” is outdated and demeaning terminology. It focuses on what people cannot do. It establishes the standard as “hearing” and anything different as “impaired,” or substandard, or damaged. It holds implications that we need to be fixed to be a part of society. As the deaf actress Marlee Matlin once said, “Barriers come from the minds of those who want to handicap you.” We all want to be treated with respect. We may be different, but we are not less.

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REFERENCES

1. Butler, R., Skelton, T. & Valentine, G. (Fall, 2001). Language barriers: Exploring the world of the deaf. Disability Studies Quarterly, 21(4), 42-52.
2. Dolnick, E. (1993). Deafness as culture. The Atlantic Monthly, September, 37-53.
3. Lane, H. (1992). The mask of benevolence. New York: Alfred Knopf.
4. Lane, H. (1997). Construction of deafness. In L. Davis (Ed.), The disability studies reader (pp. 153-171). New York: Routledge.
5. Padden, C. & Humphries, T. (1988). Deaf in America: Voices from a culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
6. Wilcox, S. (1989). American Deaf Culture: An Anthology. Burtonsville, MD: Linstock Press.
7. “Hearing Impaired Children Experience Difficulties in an Ordinary Classroom.” Hear-It, American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Feb. 2008.
8. Ringo A Understanding Deafness: Not Everyone Wants to Be ‘Fixed’. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/08/understanding-deafness-noteveryone-wants-to-be-fixed/278527/. Published June 5, 2018. Accessed March 9, 2019.
9. Goffman, E. (1997). Selections from stigma. In L. Davis (Ed.), The disability studies reader (pp. 203-215). New York: Routledge.
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