Defining deafness

By Dr. Kathryn Woodcock, 2001

People become deaf at different ages. Hearing loss can occur gradually or suddenly. It can be mild or moderate or it can be severe or profound. We’ll refer to mild or moderate (or monaural—one-sided—hearing loss as ‘hard of hearing’ and define that as outside of the scope of this page. We will not exclude anyone on the basis of age. You do not have to make it into adulthood with intact hearing to be “late” deafened. However, if you become deaf in early childhood and are educated as a deaf child, then we’ll define that as outside of the scope of this page. We will include those who grew up hard of hearing and lost hearing later, those who lost hearing early but were educated in the hearing mainstream pretty much untouched by concessions to deafness, and those who experienced all of their hearing loss in the teen years or later.

Defining who is “deaf enough” always gives me chest pain. For one thing, that’s a bludgeon the Deaf Culture uses to beat many deafened people with. Whether they intend to leave deafened people bleeding on the sidewalk outside the deaf club (figuratively), that is a frequent emotional consequence, and I personally reject contrived and imposed definitions of “deaf enough”. However, I remember when I was first really dealing with my hearing loss, I was asking my audiologist, my sign language teacher, my deaf friends, my family: “am I deaf?” I was searching for permission, because it was such a mysterious thing. I’d never been deaf so I wasn’t sure I could recognize it. There are a number of tests you might encounter to establish deafness.

Total silence

“You might be deaf” if what you hear is total silence. If you had neurofibromatosis-related surgery and the surgeon removed your auditory nerves, you’re probably not asking the same kind of questions I was. Go directly past all this soul searching.

Can’t hear on the phone

A number of people have proposed the telephone test as the litmus paper for deafness. Some deaf people can use a regular telephone in stilted and highly controlled ways so let’s not take “can’t hear on the phone” too literally. We’ll suggest that if you’re deaf, you can’t just pick up a ringing telephone with the confidence that you’ll understand the person who is calling. If you can dial your spouse’s office, hope like hell that no one else answers, and carry on a conversation successfully only by having your spouse paraphrase every sentence several times until you get it, answer only yes or no to questions you pose, or even use the spelling trick (see below), then you pass the telephone test. Don’t feel too guilty about using the phone and still saying you’re deaf.

The spelling trick is one that deafened people seem to spontaneously invent without discussing it among themselves. If you’ve never used it, here is how it works. Your spouse, let’s say, says a word, and (of course) you don’t get it. For example, s/he asks you to pick up (some two syllable word) on your way home from work. You ask your spouse to spell out this item to be picked up, not the regular way, like “pick up the b-a-b-y” (because you could mis-hear that as d-k-t-i and still be confused). The spelling trick involves spelling the mystery word “pick up the a-b, a, a-b, a-b-c-d-e-f-g-h-i-j-k-l-m-n-o-p-q-r-s-t-u-v-w-x-y”. In some conversations, all the words are mystery words. It gets worse if they have a lot of letters and make a lot of use of letters near the end of the alphabet. With any luck, you might recognize the word from the number of syllables plus the context, plus the first bit of the spelling. That’s with luck. It could have been b-r-a-t-w-u-r-s-t instead of b-a-b-y. I don’t think it makes you not-deaf if you can have an oral telephone conversation this way. It’s not like you’re going to phone up someone to ask for a job and say, “sorry I didn’t catch what you said. Could you repeat that by spelling each word from the beginning of the alphabet to each letter in sequence?” It might be an excellent way to get rid of telemarketers calling at dinnertime, however.

Rely on visual information in place of audible information

If you “feel” that you can hear but the sound disappears when you close your eyes, you’ve probably been lipreading more than you realized. I also have the inverse: if I can see it, I imagine it makes a sound. I can even “hear” insects crawling. When you’re visual, you understand television plots much better with captions displayed, and retain the name of a person you’ve just met when you can read a name tag instead of just an oral introduction. I was visual for 20 years before I figure I was deaf though. I recall annoying my Conversational French teacher in Grade 4, demanding her to spell fenêtre, an unlipreadable guttural word. Written French was supposed to be of no consequence in her quest to help us acquire the language naturally, but I needed it in writing to make sure I’d caught the word properly.

Don’t function in the hearing way

When I asked my audiologist if I was deaf, he said that there were no audiological thresholds to define deafness. His profession preferred functional definitions. Since I functioned in the hearing way (he observed), I would be called hard of hearing rather than deaf. I was sitting in his little airless booth, holding my breath to try to pluck pure tones and spondee words out of the headphones, and basically not doing well at all. I can hear a very loud 500Hz tone and that’s it for pure tones. We do some sentence tests through the window and I score perfect when I’m looking at him, sound or no sound. He expresses amazement that I pass for hearing as I do, yet because I don’t know any other way to function, he tells me I’m hard of hearing. A year later, I’ve learned enough sign language to take interpreters to business meetings and academic conferences, and I am stunned by how much more I am comprehending with a year’s sign language study compared to 20 years of lipreading experience.

Upon years of reflection, the functional definition strikes me as rather circular. The person needs to have the option before you can infer that they have chosen to function in a particular way. I functioned orally because that’s all I knew. And in retrospect, for a long time it was only half function, and half fakery. Sadly, in Canada, if you express yourself orally, you are hard of hearing, regardless of the need to lipread like the dickens for information reception. I continue to be able to speak and generate English concepts more eloquently than I can generate signs. It doesn’t mean I don’t prefer to receive information by signs, and even prefer American Sign Language over signed English. Although members of the community now recognize that deafened people exist in the spectrum, there is little overall recognition of the differences of deafened people and hard of hearing people. At least the American oralist movement has staked out a turf for “oral deaf” adults, so the concept has been prepared that people can speak and yet not be able to hear.

Auditory thresholds

I was taught as an ergonomist that the World Health Organization defined deafness in terms of the average hearing threshold at three frequencies, 500Hz, 1KHz, and 2KHz (because these three cover the main speech spectrum of 300–3000 Hz). You take the average of the quietest audible decibel level at each of these frequencies for each ear. The ear with the lowest number (smallest hearing loss) is called the Better Ear (how audist!), and the average decibel hearing loss at those three frequencies is the Better Ear Average. If your Better Ear Average is 90dB or more, you’re profoundly deaf, 70–90dB, you’re severly deaf, and onward up the chart to moderate and mild. Frankly, this calculation appeals to me more than the functional definition because it gave me permission to yield to the huge burden of managing a 90dB loss without modification from the Normal Hearing routine.

Auditory threshold is not necessarily the best test of deafness for everyone. My ability to pass for hearing right up to 90dB was enabled by my very slow rate of hearing loss and ability to hone my lipreading (and faking) skills over 20 years. Someone who is whacked on the head in a mugging and loses 65dB overnight may be so disrupted by the difference that oral functioning is out of the question.

Always been deaf, went to a deaf school, had deaf parents

Obviously, the majority of deafened people are not going to pass these traditional Deaf Culture tests. There are some people whose hereditary late-deafness has been dominant in their family tree, and there are some whose adolescent moderate hearing loss got them into a deaf and hard of hearing classroom, but most deafened people are at a disadvantage in these ‘seniority-based’ definitions. This is unfortunate in the role-model department, because deafened people wake up in the morning just as deaf as those who have been deaf longer, and yet because of the opportunities they had pre-deafness, they get dressed and go to the office to do pretty impressive jobs. If they can continue doing those jobs, it seems to prove that people who have been deaf longer could also do those jobs. But as long as people are lobbing not-deaf-enough spitballs across the aisle, the great potential role-model collaboration isn’t likely to happen.

It seems that this test is applied primarily to the living. Dead deafened people automatically become deaf enough, such as Juliette Gordon Low (Girl Scouts founder), musician Beethoven (also see this), inventor Edison, etc.

Hearing impaired

I don’t want to get into any fights about this. Don’t even send me email if you disagree. Just figure I am an idiot if you want, and go to another site. The conclusion I have reached introspectively, retrospectively, and observationally, is that “hearing impaired” is the term used by people who don’t want to deal with their deafness or hearing loss, and also by people who want to dominate people with deafness or hearing loss. I have no quarrel with the term “hearing impairment” as a quality that is possessed by someone. I prefer “deafness” and “hearing loss” but I can live with “hearing impairment”. People who say they are hearing-impaired tend to be afraid to say they are deaf, or people who are hard of hearing but don’t like the term. (What’s not to like? You can hear but it’s hard.) I don’t like the concatenation of the verb “to be” with the term “impaired”: broken, defective, inadequate. If I’m saying what I “am”, I’m going to say I AM an engineer, I AM a mother, I AM a professor. I am not going to say I AM something-impaired or accentuate what I am not when I am affirmatively so many things.

People who are not deaf or hard of hearing who use the term normally use it to subsume both audiological populations under the same umbrella, usually just for convenience in expression (four syllables for hearing impaired, compared to six for deaf-and-hard-of-hearing). This usage is ignorant or uncaring that the two groups differ in almost every respect except the anatomical location of their difference from ‘normal’, reducing us to one body part. These are invariably the same people who talk about “emphasize the ability not the disability”, in other words the euphemism-meisters. I don’t want to debate this; if you don’t like it, change the channel. It’s just my opinion.