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Terminology Describing Deaf Individuals

This information is part of an online guide, Resources for Mainstream Programs

Deaf, hard of hearing

The current terms in use by the deaf community today are deaf and hard of hearing. In 1991, the World Federation of the Deaf voted to use the official terms deaf and hard of hearing. The National Association of the Deaf supports these terms, and they are used by most organizations involved with the deaf community. Support for the use of these terms is discussed in the Joint Committee of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and the Council on Education of the Deaf 1997 paper, Hearing Loss: Terminology and Classification. This paper details the importance of allowing individuals the option of choosing the terminology to describe themselves based on their hearing status, communication preferences, cultural orientation, and use of technology.

Hard of hearing usually refers to people who have enough hearing to communicate and feel comfortable communicating through spoken language. There are no specific hearing levels or personal characteristics that determine whether a person will function as hard of hearing. Each deaf or hard of hearing person is unique in his or her hearing status and ability to communicate using spoken language.

Hearing impaired

A commonly used term today is hearing impaired. While it is not as blatantly insulting as some of the older  terms, many individuals dislike it because it describes deaf people based on what they cannot do.

Deaf and dumb, deaf-mute

 Deaf people themselves have never adopted these terms or considered them acceptable. They have finally faded from use.

deaf, Deaf

deaf with a lowercase "d" is usually an audiological description of a person's hearing level. It most often refers to a person who is unable to use his or her hearing for the purpose of understanding everyday communication. Being deaf does not mean the person can not hear anything at all.  Not all people who are deaf identify themselves with, or participate in, Deaf culture.

Deaf with an uppercase "D" refers to deaf adults and children who share the use of American Sign Language and Deaf culture-common values, rules for behavior, traditions, and views of themselves and others (Padden & Humphries, 1988). People who identify with Deaf culture and describe themselves as Deaf may also have a range of hearing levels. 

Prelingually deaf, postlingually deaf, and late deafened.

Prelingually deaf refers to individuals who were born deaf or became deaf prior to learning to understand and speak a language. Postlingually deaf or late deafened describes a person who lost hearing ability after he or she learned to understand speak a language. These distinctions are important as they may determine a person's familiarity with and memory of spoken English. These terms do not relate to intelligence or potential.


National Association of the Deaf: What is the difference between a person who is "deaf," "Deaf," or "hard of hearing"?and What is wrong with the use of these terms: "Deaf-mute," "teaf and dumb," or "hearing impaired"?


American Speech-Language-Hearing Association: Impairment, disorder, disability.



Padden, C., & Humphries, T. (1988). Deaf in America: Voices from a culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.