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Why it’s imperative we re-define the word ‘deaf’

What is the definition of the word deaf?

How would you explain the meaning of the word ‘deaf’?

The question is immensely important because how we answer it has a direct effect on our messages, which in turn affect Society’s attitudes towards hearing and deafness. The problem is that we are currently using the term ambiguously, which leads to mixed messages and confusion – both of which are counterproductive.

The dictionary definition of ‘deaf’

deaf adj
1 unable to hear at all or unable to hear well.
2 (usually deaf to something) not willing to listen to (advice, appeals, criticism, etc).
3 (the deaf) deaf people in general

Chambers 21st Century Dictionary

Notice there are actually two parts to the main dictionary definition (Definition 1). “Unable to hear at all” we can understand: we simply think of it as being the auditory equivalent of being blind. But how on earth do we define the second part: “unable to hear well”? Where do we start? And are we really supposed to believe that’s the equivalent to being unable to hear at all?

Perhaps we first need to know what “to hear well” means. Putting this into practical terms, how many times are we allowed to say “Pardon! Can you repeat that?” before we lose our "hearing well” status? Or what about when we’re in a loud nightclub and can’t follow the conversation? Are we now deaf? Are we allowed to miss a few of the consonants before we gain “deaf” status (Definition 3)?

In other words, just how much or how often do we need to not hear well before we are considered ‘deaf’?

So let’s take a moment to think this question through, together with any implications.

  • Possibility 1
    Deaf means anything other than hearing well
  • Possibility 2
    Deaf means unable to hear anything below a specified level.

Possibility 1 is how the word 'deaf' tends to be used today by both professionals and members of the public (and remember the public tend to take their lead on these matters from the professionals). So ‘deaf’ often gets used as a catch-all phrase to mean anything other than “hearing well” or “normal hearing”.

But such a catch-all definition is fraught with problematic implications. 

The problem with using ‘deaf’ as a catch-all term

If ‘deaf’ simply means “anything other than hearing well” we are using one word to cover everything from the person who might be having the occasional problem in noisy environments to someone who uses sign language as their primary means of communication.

We are using the same term to describe a hearing level of 25dB on the one hand and 105dB on the other; 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! 

It’s like putting everyone into a blender, so they lose their individual identities, experiences, challenges and needs.

When we use deaf as a catch-all term everyone loses.

Imagine you personally have a slight reduction in your hearing range so you're missing some of the higher pitched sounds (such as the [s], [f] and [th] sounds). You look over at one of the Deaf using sign language to communicate and who have no hearing at all. Realistically, when you compare yourself to the person signing do you honestly consider yourself to be 'deaf' too? And just as importantly, would they consider you to be deaf?

It's highly unlikely – because in comparison to the person using sign language as their primary language, you'll probably think to yourself, "There's really not much wrong with my hearing. Generally speaking, I hear well".

So if someone such as a friend or family member were to suggest you were "going deaf", you're going to find yourself automatically comparing your hearing range with that of the person using sign language to see if what's being said of you really applies.

‘Going deaf’ – a hearing person sees it as a threat to be avoided

You'll likely be thinking to yourself:

If I’m going deaf, is that where I’m heading?
Will I end up unable to hear at all?
Will I have to learn sign language just to communicate?

As someone who is used to being part of “the hearing community”—whose friends, family and colleagues all communicate with speech— that’s something you will very likely consider a threat. You’ll be questioning how “being deaf” might affect your relationships, your job, your social life, your love of music.

Social psychology teaches us that when a threat is too great, we ignore it – possibly as means of self-protection; possibly because we don’t think it applies to us (See: Ditto, Munro, Apanovitch, Scepansky, & Lockhart, 2003. Rogers & Prentice-Dunn, 1997).

So your ​AVOID reaction kicks in to protect how you see yourself and your place in the world.

An avoid reaction leads to inaction

Chances are you may even attempt to PROVE that “going deaf” doesn't apply to you by carrying on as if everything is as it always has been. So you wouldn’t have your hearing tested. Why would you? You haven’t had it tested before, have you? And if you start having your hearing tested now, surely it would suggest you might actually be worried there really is some truth in the allegation that you are 'going deaf'. (And we don't like to be proved wrong, do we?)

And you're certainly not going to consider the idea of getting hearing aids because “I’ve never needed them before. Why do need some now?”

Our inaction affects everyone else

No matter how natural this reaction might be (and it is a natural reaction), it unfortunately doesn’t just affect you. It affects those around you. They’ll misinterpret your quiet refusal to do something about your hearing as stubbornness or pride ​or ​denial​. Every time you mishear something, because you've not done something about it, it will reinforce their own certainty that you are “going deaf”. It's one of those vicious circles.

And thus a stereotype is reinforced

Meanwhile what’s perceived as your stubbornness as a “deaf person” (definition 3)—and the frustration you cause those around you—unfortunately gets transferred to all “deaf people”. Because that’s what we do as humans: we categorise things based on what we’ve experienced ourselves. This process of categorisation has a lot to do with where stereotypes come from.

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. Nice work!

All this arises because our definition of being “deaf” is currently far too broad.

So that’s how using ‘deaf’ as a catch-all term affects individuals who should be taking action for a reduction in their hearing range. Whilst these individuals could very easily do something to overcome their own hearing difficulties, instead they impose the effect of those difficulties on those around them, requiring others to change their normal course of behaviour to compensate for their own inaction.

Knock-on implications for deaf-as-in-unable-to-hear-at-all people

Sadly this inaction of people who could improve their hearing has a negative impact on deaf people at the opposite end of the current definition spectrum: those whose hearing range is limited to the extent that they are put at a disadvantage in core society even if they are wearing hearing aids, or else unable to benefit from hearing aids. Core society becomes harder for these individuals to access because the assumption of society is that “everyone hears well” and so it gears itself around this belief (e.g. public address announcements, paying for goods in a shop, public talks etc)

So for these individuals there are going to be situations where no matter how good hearing technology has become, no matter how much effort they invest in listening strategies, they will still need the practical understanding of those around them who take “hearing well” for granted. Whether it’s co-operation in speaking more slowly and distinctly, or facing them when speaking with them, or moving positions at a dinner table, or repeating themselves using alternative wording, or providing visual alternatives.

The need for understanding and kindness

Whenever we require OTHER PEOPLE to change their normal course of behaviour in order to accommodate us, it requires understanding and kindness on the part of other. Such openness to the perspectives of others 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 demonstrate that practical understanding.

That's why Society requires what is sometimes referred to as deaf awareness training.

Our self-made dilemma

But have you noticed the dilemma we have here?

At one end of the definition spectrum we have individuals who should be taking responsibility for their reduction in hearing range but instead unfairly rely on Society to compensate for their own inaction and lack of acceptance of the problem. But at the other end of the definition spectrum we have individuals who genuinely need the practical understanding of Society because their residual reduction in hearing leaves them at a disadvantage.

Our Messages: mixed, confused, counterproductive

This is really, really important for us to grasp!

Because we're currently using the SAME TERM to describe both groups of people with completely separate needs, the individuals who actually need Society's practical understanding (e.g. with a severe or profound reduction in their hearing range) aren't getting it because Society is wrongly assuming that it's up to these individuals to “do something about their hearing” or “try harder” because they personally know ‘deaf people’ who “have a problem with their hearing but just won't do anything about it.” 

By contrast those who should be taking responsibility for their reduction in hearing (i.e. those who could do something to improve it) are wrongly assuming that it's up to Society to “support” them because they've heard that Society should show more understanding and kindness for deaf people!! And they're using this “need for others to understand” as an excuse for inaction!

That’s why our “deaf” messages are mixed, confusing and counterproductive.

We need to REDEFINE what the word 'deaf' means. By "redefine", I don't mean "not use the word". I mean we need to use it in a way that does not lead to confusion through the ambiguity we currently have.

Redefining the word ‘deaf’

This brings us onto Possibility 2 from the beginning of this article, that the definition for ‘deaf’ should be restricted to mean being unable to hear below a specified level. 

But what should that specified level be?

Whatever we choose needs to be of a level where an individual’s residual reduction in hearing range leaves them at a disadvantage within a society where “hearing well” is automatically assumed.

Deaf: a signal to Society

In other words, we should be using the term ‘deaf’ as a linguistic signal to those around them who automatically assume the presence of hearing, a signal to them that they need to demonstrate kindness and understanding by changing their own normal course of behaviour in order to facilitate the “deaf” person's participation as fully as their own.

To put it another way, being ‘deaf’ is:

What we can learn from the term ‘blind’

It is interesting to note that the word 'blind' already has a clarified definition, with legally blind being described as follows:

"In North America and most of Europe, legal blindness is defined as visual acuity (vision) of 20/200 (6/60) or less in the better eye with best correction possible. A legally blind individual would have to stand 20 feet (6.1m) from an object to see it—with corrective lenses —with the same degree of clarity as a normally sighted person could from 200 feet (61m)."


Whilst we cannot directly compare sight with hearing, it is certainly helpful to have a quantitive cut-off point for when someone is considered blind “to determine which people may need special assistance because of their visual disabilities.” Wikipedia.

It is also interesting to note that this definition for blindness also takes into consideration the effect of any corrective technology. Something we could learn from with our own definitions.

A quantitive definition for deaf

Taking all this into consideration I propose the following definition for the word deaf:

Deaf means having a non-amplified Speech Intelligibility Index of 0% so that average everyday speech at 1 metre away (3.3 feet) is inaudible without the use of hearing technology. Or a Speech Intelligibility Index below 40% with hearing technology.

But perhaps you have your own comments, suggestions or exceptions for such a definition… feel free to use the comments section below.

So let's start putting our collective heads together. But let's always have in our mind the overriding objective we have here. We are not redefining for the word “deaf” for the sake of it, or for reasons of political correctness.

We’re doing this to ensure that we are using our language appropriately in order to modernise attitudes to hearing and deafness: We want a Society in which people do everything they can to keep their own hearing working at its optimum, and confident that the rest of Society will demonstrate practical understanding them should a residual reduction in their hearing put them at a disadvantage.

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