People who are hard of hearing and people who are deaf both experience hearing loss to varying degrees, with the hearing loss being more severe in people who are deaf. When someone is hard of hearing, that person may have trouble hearing sounds at certain frequencies and volumes. People who are deaf have little to no functional hearing. Another group of people have auditory processing disorders; although their hearing is fine, their brains have difficulty processing the sounds, and they may have difficulty understanding speech and other noises. Collectively, such individuals are said to have hearing loss or hearing impairment, depending on regional and personal preferences.
People can be diagnosed as hard of hearing and deaf at any age. Some people are born with less functional hearing, while others may acquire it as a result of illness, reactions to medications, or hearing damage caused by exposure to loud noises. Testing can be used to determine the extent of functional hearing. Some hard of hearing and deaf people may choose to wear hearing aids, while others may use tools like lip reading and sign language to communicate with the world around them.
It is possible for someone who is hard of hearing to experience progressive hearing loss, ultimately becoming deaf. People with some functional hearing may prefer to identify as deaf because their hearing is so limited and they need many of the accommodations extended to people without any hearing, such as visual alert alarms rather than audible ones, or access to sign language translation. Members of the hard of hearing and deaf communities may also have disabilities such as intellectual or cognitive disabilities, and could require additional accommodations.
When interacting with people who are hard of hearing and deaf, the method of communication they prefer should be considered. A person who uses lip reading and speaks to people directly, for instance, cannot focus on something like a handout or overhead display while also trying to read the lips of a school instructor. When a sign language interpreter is used, people should face and talk to the person who is deaf or hard of hearing, not the interpreter, and should be aware that other visual information can be hard to process while following the interpretation.
It can be important to be aware that some deaf people are also members of the Deaf community, distinguished by capitalizing the term. Many people who are part of Deaf culture do not view deafness as a disability and reject terms like “hearing impaired” to describe them. For hard of hearing and deaf people who identify with this community, hearing loss is viewed as a normal variation on human experience and they may not be interested in treating or curing it.