Don't Tell Me I'm Not "Hearing-Impaired"!

by Tina Blue
January 1, 2002

          Some time ago I responded to a question posted by someone on the
Hearing Exchange
message board.  He wanted to know whether we thought of our hearing loss as a disease or a disability or handicap.  He got several responses, but one really caught my attention.  The mother of a hearing-impaired boy wrote:

          My son, 9 years old, has been HOH since birth. We have always referred to him as "hearing impaired," because his only impairment is his hearing. I was recently told by the deaf community leaders in our area that "hearing impaired" is not a politically correct term. I'm still not sure why.

          One reason why this response attracted my attention was that I had considered submitting some of my articles to Hearing Loss: The Journal of Self-Help for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, but I was so put off by their politically correct sanctimoniousness about the term "hearing impaired" that I decided not to.

          Here is what their authors' guidelines for submitted articles have to say about the proper terminology for referring to people who don't hear well:

          Important terminology to use for people with hearing loss. The umbrella term for all people who have hearing loss is "people with hearing loss." The subcategories are "deaf people" and "hard of hearing people." Please use these terms in their proper context. Do not say "the hearing impaired, the deaf, or the hard of hearing." Use "people with hearing loss, deaf people, and hard of hearing people," or "people who are deaf or hard of hearing." People is the optimum word. Similarly, use "people with disabilities," or "people who are disabled." Don't categorize the individual by his or her disability.

          Now, I don't think of deafness as a disease, but it definitely is handicap or a disability. Human beings have certain faculties, including their five senses. If any of those faculties are significantly impaired, then the individual has a disability.

          There are, of course, degrees of disability. I function so well that people don't usually realize I am deaf unless I tell them, and even then they often don't believe it (which means I seldom get any help from them!).

          But I struggle to understand what is going on around me, and conversing with most people is exhausting and frustrating. I can only watch TV and movies with a friend who is willing to help me when I can't follow the dialogue. I can't go to live theater or lectures, so I miss out on many things I wish I could still participate in.

          I teach college English (very well, too, I might add), but I could never function as a student in a classroom again, though I was able to when much younger, before my deafness had progressed this far.

          All these things are limited by my deafness. I am not less of a "whole" person or less of a "competent" person because of my handicap, but I definitely am handicapped, and in order to function in many social situations, I must ask (sometimes even demand rather forcefully) that my handicap be accommodated by those with normal hearing.

          I don't know why people with handicaps are so reluctant to call their impairments handicaps (or impairments, for that matter). It's not as if there is anything wrong with having one or another ability impaired. It's just an accident of nature.

          My ears don't do what nature designed them for. In nature, as opposed to civilization, I probably would not survive, just as a bird that cannot fly or a rabbit that cannot run probably would not survive.

          Fortunately, I don't have to listen for predators sneaking up to eat me or my young, or for the sounds of game I need to hunt or enemies I need to escape. So I get by pretty well. But I still miss out on things I would rather not miss out on, and I still struggle in situations where people with normal hearing don't have to struggle at all. I consider that a disability. What else could I consider it?

          And this business about "hearing impaired" not being politically correct really bothers me.

          Sure, I understand why people say it's not, but I reject such political correctness. My hearing is definitely impaired. The word "impaired" means diminished in quantity, value, or strength. My hearing is decidedly diminished. But to say that my hearing is diminished is not the same thing as saying that I am diminished. I absolutely reject such an equation, which is the repulsive premise that lies behind the idea that "hearing-impaired" is not a politically correct term.

          I am a writer and an English teacher, and as such I take the precise use language very seriously. I hate to see perfectly good words and phrases twisted or misinterpreted. If a person's hearing doesn't work as well as it should, then his hearing is impaired. I don't see anything wrong with calling an impairment an impairment.  Nor do I feel embarrassed or ashamed that I have such an impairment.  Why should I?

          During the Victorian period, any terms that had even the most remotely sexual connotations were considered inappropriate for polite company, so you were not supposed to refer to the "legs" of a table or a piano. You see, women have legs (gasp!), and therefore "legs" was considered a sexual term. So pianos and tables had "limbs," to avoid offending excessively delicate sensibilities.

          Me--I am significantly hearing-impaired. I am handicapped. I am not "differently abled" by my disability. I have all sorts of impressive abilities--but hearing well is definitely not one of them!

          On the other hand, I am smart, talented and, I have been told, personable. Having a hearing impairment doesn't affect any of that, and
I have a hearing impairment doesn't affect any of that.

          And if you want to argue with me about this, please speak loudly, because I am hearing-impaired, and I need people to make some effort to accommodate my handicap.

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