Explaining the difference between deaf and hearing impaired can be somewhat tricky. This is because the two terms can be used to refer to the physical measurement of one’s ability to detect sound or to one’s relationship to deaf and hearing communities. It is important to note that hearing impaired is not actually considered an acceptable label by many deafness advocacy groups, many of which prefer the term hard of hearing.
Before discussing the difference between deaf and hearing impaired, it is necessary to stress the fact that the label hearing impaired is not actually considered acceptable to many individuals with hearing conditions, as well as many deafness advocacy groups. This is primarily due to the fact that the word “impaired” suggests a deficiency. Many of those with hearing loss wish for their condition to be viewed as a difference rather than a shortcoming. Therefore, many of these individuals and groups prefer the term hard of hearing.
Historically, the terms deaf and hearing impaired have been used to denote a physical measurement of one’s ability to detect sound. Those completely unable to detect sound of any kind were labeled deaf, while those who could detect limited amounts of sound were labeled hearing impaired. Advances in assistive hearing technologies such as hearing aids and cochlear implants have complicated this simple definition, however. For instance, an individual who is naturally unable to detect any sound may be able to hear limited sound with the use of a hearing aid. As this individual can transition between the states historically known as deaf and hearing impaired, placing him within one category or the other becomes difficult.
The terms deaf and hearing impaired have also been used historically to refer to the relationship of an individual with a hearing condition to Deaf and hearing communities. Within this fairly subjective usage, an individual is likely to regard himself as Deaf if he feels a primary identification with others who have hearing conditions. Collectively, this group of individuals is generally known as the Deaf community, with deaf in this case always written with a capital “D.” Use of sign language is often one of the primary links between members of the Deaf community. It is important to note that an individual can identify himself as Deaf in this sense regardless of how much sound he can detect.
In this cultural sense, a hard of hearing person, once known as a hearing impaired person, is an individual with a hearing condition who feels a primary identification with the hearing community. The reasons that an individual with a hearing condition may primarily identify with the hearing community can be complex, and vary from person to person. In some cases, the individual may have lost his hearing later in life and wishes to remain part of the hearing community in which he has always lived.