Deaf, deaf or Hard of Hearing?

This British Sign Language (BSL) course is rapidly turning into a baptism of fire. For a start, when is someone deaf or hard of hearing? Worse, when is someone deaf or Deaf? Before anyone starts levelling accusations of semantics, it is actually very important and the answer will determine the best way for you to communicate with that person.

To start with, let’s establish whether someone is deaf, Deaf, hard of hearing or deafened (yes, they are all quite different). A deaf person is someone who has suffered any level of hearing loss at any age from any cause. They may have other language skills (such as lipreading) and sign language may not be their preferred means. I think it tends to be a “catch all” term for people with hearing loss, regardless of any other issue.

A Deaf person (with capital D) is someone who belongs to the deaf community and almost certainly considers BSL to be their first language. They are often born deaf and/or have Deaf family members; they certainly have Deaf friends. They are crucial to the study and learning of BSL for all beginners, unlike someone who (say) may use lipreading as a primary communication resource. Added to the mix is the CODA, the Child of Deaf Adults who may or may not be hearing but will almost certainly be a full member of the Deaf community and will probably consider BSL to be a first language instead of English.

Someone is hard of hearing if they have lost their hearing later in life. I had been told that you were deaf if you were born with hearing loss, but hard of hearing if you have had the ability to hear at any point in your life, which may or may not be correct. These people will almost certainly not sign as a first resort, and will probably have hearing aids or cochlear implants to boost what residual hearing they have. They may lip read or you may have to speak slower and clearer to promote understanding. Of course, writing notes is always an option!

Someone is deafened if they suffer sudden and profound hearing loss due to trauma, illness or even the side effect of medication. Hearing aids/cochlear implants may not be of any help (depending on the cause of the deafness) and, of course, they will not have had opportunity to sign. Learning to lip read is a lengthy process and can be exhausting if one is not used to it. Here, a notepad will be an essential tool, at least until some lipreading and/or BSL can be picked up.

And that’s just the first couple of pages of the textbook. I’ve got a long way to go yet….

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