what’s in a word?

Are there any words to use about disability that don’t have a negative connotation?

Handicap is pretty much frowned upon in the UK and not used. Its considered patronising and reminiscent of having to go “cap in hand” to beg for favours. In Canada though you see signs for handicapped parking spaces, it doesnt seem to be a problem word here. I’m uncomfortable with it though.

Hearing impaired is another phrase thats fraught with problems. I think it describes my hearing because I could hear once but now I can’t. I was told by a member of the Deaf community that this phrase is insulting, they don’t consider that their hearing is impaired.

The phrase that they suggested I use is hard of hearing. To me it sounds like it’s hard to hear, but I can do it if I try, in the same way that homework is hard. It doesn’t describe the depth of my hearing loss, it doesn’t cover the impossibility of hearing when the nerve cells are dead. I certainly don’t want to go be audist here and I respect the Deaf community’s point of view, on the other hand I don’t think that I should be told how to describe my hearing.

Impaired isn’t a good word in North America. “Impaired” has negative connotations to do with recklessness. An impaired driver is a drunk driver.

Hearing loss, Loss? is that negative? Is it careless? As Oscar Wilde said “To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness”.

Disabled seems reasonably safe, as long as you refer to the disability and not the person, ie a person who has a disability, not a disabled person. I am still an able person, I am a person with a disability. Differentlyabled is a clumsy word but apt.

The World Health Organisation has defined the words; handiap, disability and impairment.


Impairment: Any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological, or anatomical structure or function.
Disability: Any restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being.
A disadvantage for a given individual, resulting from an impairment or disability, that, limits or prevents the fulfillment of a role that is normal, depending on age, sex, social and cultural factors, for that individual.

By these definitions;

My impairment is that my hearing isn’t what it was.

My disability is that I am not able to hold a conversation easily, to use the phone, to watch a movie, to enjoy music.

I am handicapped by movie theatres without captions, a theatre performance without captions, a telephone without a text display, a restaurant with background music, a person who won’t talk more clearly or write things down.

So a handicap is a manmade condition, caused by barriers that prevent a person with a disability from accessing the same physical, cultural, social activities that someone without that disability has access too. Handicaps should not exist.


10 responses »

  1. I was just thinking about this the other day… and I concluded that it’s based on your personal preferences. Personally, I don’t like describing myself as hearing impaired because I don’t feel impaired or disabled in anyway… just someone with difficulty hearing everything that is said.

    I describe myself either as hard of hearing or deaf. Deaf tends to give me bigger reactions and some people even start asking questions (which I enjoy answering).

    And about your comment with deaf-and-dumb, I find it extremely insulting as well. That’s one of the reasons I decided to launch this other blog with a friend… http://deafandtalented.wordpress.com/… to prove that the deaf can be talented and smart.

    Thanks for the comment by the way! Glad to know that you are enjoying my blog 🙂 I love reading your blog as well.

  2. This is something I think about and struggle with a lot when I’m writing. There are plenty of phrases which I or other writers will dash off thoughtlessly, but which turn out to have unpleasant implications when you think about it from the point of view of the people you’re talking about.

  3. How about just plain old “deaf”? Lower case, that is. Or perhaps “deafened” if you want to emphasize that you are late-deafened rather than congenitally deaf? I agree about “handicapped” having rather negative connotations. Not sure why but it makes me think of those 3-wheeled cars so reviled by Mr Bean(Reliant Robins). Perhaps there was a version with hand-operated controls.

  4. Steve, I think I do prefer to say “deaf” it’s in my blog title after all. It implies that I can’t hear much. Speech doesn’t have small case which can be a proble. I find that when I say I am deaf people are surprised that I do hear somethings, and feel rather shortchanged, or even annoyed that I can. Maybe they even think I am a fraud?

    Sarah, I’m glad you give it some thought and I would have expected nothing less from you. Sadly though there are still plenty who think deaf and dumb is just fine.

    Sunbleached, welcome, glad to see you here. You are right that saying deaf does get you bigger reactions, curiosity. It’s good that you are happy to respond to their questions too.


  5. BY far the WORST term we in the UK have read, is the American widespread usage of the word ‘Retard’, there is simply no way you cna use that word without being offensive. By comparison handicapped is nothing much at all, few disabled here worry about its use. Even Obabma makes the gaff doesn’t he ! and he should know better.

    Other words that annoys here are(d)eaf, and (D)eaf ! the latter is getting used as an egocentric term to mean ‘real’ deaf people, increasingly a form of abuse and discimination online, seen by some. As always context is the key, but not everyone sees this…

    Be proud of who you are, but do not ‘rub it in’ seems to be the key.

  6. Hi MM and welcome.

    Retard is definitely offensive, it’s only ever used as a term of abuse. The words I am talking about, apart from “deaf and dumb” are just words and phrases that are used to describe a state of hearing. It’s just tricky to know which one is the right one to use.
    Handicapped doesn’t have the same cultural connotations here as it does in the UK (I’m British BTW) and I wonder if given the WHO’s definition that we should reclaim the word. Handicapped is what society makes us,what it does to limit our world, it’s not what we make of ourselves.

    I wouldn’t wish an acquired hearing loss on anyone. That’s entirely different to living in a Deaf world with Deaf culture. I’m not proud of being deaf/deafened/hard of hearing/hearing impaired. I am proud sometimes of how I deal with it.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “rub it in”. Perhaps you could explain?

  7. This might be veering off topic a bit but something about language use that bothers me is this:

    People who have ‘normal’ hearing who say, “oh, I’m deaf” or “I’m hard of hearing” when in fact they simply did not hear something or they are simply not listening. I feel that it diminishes the meaning of those words when they are uttered in sincerity. Like the boy who cried wolf… but by proxy, or something like that.

    Sometimes when I tell people that I am hard of hearing, people think that I’m just saying that or that I’m joking. Eventually a situation occurs where it becomes very obvious that I am indeed hard of hearing. “Oh, you really ARE hard of hearing.”

    I find that frustrating.

  8. I think it’s on topic. One of the problems with knowing the right words to use is how they will be understood. What do we understand by hard of hearing etc. I’ve been listening to myself talk since I wrote the post. At work as I introduce myself to each patient I have to tell them that I don’t hear very well. I change what I say according to whom I am speaking. Maybe this is an attempt to take into account how I think the phrase will be received.

    If I say I am deaf then some people just stop talking, any of the other options and usually they keep on talking. Remember of course that most patients are stressed out to some degree and so their response may not be typical.

    I have come across the joking aspect, it’s awful when people laugh in your face. It’s not meant as personally as we take it though.

    If there is a nice way of saying you missed something, when you have normal hearing is to say “i’m a bit Mutt and Jeff today”. But that would only work for Britons, and maybe even just Londoners.

    The simple truth is that deafness, and degrees of it are not understood. Even though it’s one of the most common disabilities people just don’t believe you. The better we cope the less others realise how little we hear.

    Partially deaf is a good way to describe hearing loss. It has no negative connotations.

  9. While I was losing my hearing, I always referred to myself as hearing impaired. This often led to an explaination of the extent of my impairment. After 30 years of telling and explaining, I was relieved when I felt I could say I was deaf. This era was short-lived. Now when I need to tell, I say I hear with cochlear implants. Reactions vary!

  10. I am deaf. Not impaired, by any means. I am small “d” because I lost my hearing later in life. Usually, when people find out they either treat me like there is something wrong with me, or don’t know how to communicate all of a sudden.
    I really don’t like to label myself, or limit who I am. My truth is ‘deafness’. And that is okay by me.

    It is odd how people forget that I can’t hear them and they still go on talking a mile a minute, cover their mouths, chew, or walk away mid conversation…it is just so weird.

    I think, whatever YOU feel comfortable with calling yourself is fine. After all, you are just YOU. A decent, fabulous human being!!

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