Lament for a Hoh: My Hard of Hearing Identity Crisis

Gael Hannan
October 11, 2011

Do you know what really bugs me about being hard of hearing?   I simply detest the term hard of hearing.

What does that mean, anyway? What do those words tell you about me, or the way I communicate? I need a better term  to describe myself, but the choice is limited: hard of hearing, a person with hearing loss, hearing-impaired, deaf or deafened.

I don’t want to wade too deeply into the politics of deaf terminology, but I do appreciate that ‘hearing’ people have difficulty understanding the difference between having a hearing loss and being deaf.  But, a warning to those who choose to dip a toe into our waters: this is a very complex issue, with infinite shades of overlapping grey.

And for anyone with a taste for danger, perhaps even a death wish, here’s something to try. Stand up in the midst of a group of people who are hard of hearing, Deaf, deaf or deafened – and shout, “Yo, you guys! Why don’t you all just call yourself hearing-impaired? You’re all the same, anyway!”

Then run.

Although we share many issues of being deaf or hard of hearing in a predominantly hearing world, our groups are unique with  intersecting boundaries that may not be clear to others. How we self-identify goes beyond the degree and type of our hearing loss, as described in audiological or medical terms (mild, profound,sensorineural, 60db loss, etc.). Our identity also relates to our language of choice, spoken or signed, and the community with which we are most comfortable.

Some communities are vibrantly visible, such as Deaf Culture. The communities of people who are deafened or hard of hearing may not be as evident, even to those who would benefit from connecting with them. However, their profile is growing, especially through awareness generated by consumer support organizations such as the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association (CHHA), the Association of Late Deafened Adults (ALDA) and the International Federation of Hard of Hearing People (IFHOH).

Identifying as hard of hearing, I feel connected to an international community, but damn, I still hate the term. Something about it has always sounded a little off.  Maybe it’s the word hard, which makes me think of compacted earwax, brittle hair cells and a dried-up cochlea, although it probably refers to the challenges and frustrations of understanding the spoken word.

But what other term can I use?

I could shorten it. When writing about being hard of hearing, we often use the acronym ‘hoh’. On paper it looks fine, but try saying this out loud: I’m a hoh.

Hearing-impaired is the absolute worst, universally rejected, totally non-acceptable term. Am I broken, flawed, damaged, a total mess? And even if I were, it’s not because of my hearing loss – I have other issues, too.

I’m not quite deaf – yet – and I’m definitely not a member of the Deaf community. Knowing how to sign ‘good morning’ and being able to fingerspell, albeit painfully slowly, does not a Deaf person make.

While I do say that I’m a ‘person with hearing loss’, this term presents the same fundamental problem as other descriptors: it fails to convey, in a flash, what I need in order to communicate successfully.

Let’s say I dash into the corner store for groceries and there he is, the nice man whose first language is not the same as mine. (Although, bless him, he’s speaking my language perfectly, whereas I don’t know a single word in his). My speechreading skills are not attuned to his accent or lip movements, and he tends to look at the cash register rather than me. Do you think by simply stating, “Hi, I have hearing loss”, he’ll start communicating effectively with me?  I must follow up with detailed instructions:

Hello, I am a person with hearing loss (or hard of hearing, but never a hoh). Please face me, speak clearly and tell me how much I owe you so that I don’t have to shove a $20 bill across the counter in the hope that it’s enough. Thank you very much.

Every day, I repeat variations on this theme, because a mere statement of hearing loss usually prompts people to apologize, shout, or look slightly panicked.  Once most people  get the knack of it, they are more than happy to communicate well, although requiring regular reminders.  (Note that I said most.)

In the meantime, I continue to search for a better term of self-identification that doesn’t contain the words hard, loss, or hoh.

  1. “Yo, you guys! Why don’t you all just call yourself hearing-impaired? You’re all the same, anyway!” Then run “like hell.”
    Gael, I really had a good laugh with that comment. Deaf people do not like to the term hearing-impaired because they do not consider themselve to be disabled or “broken” and that is because of Sign Language. People losing their hearing will never admit it and those that do might prefer hearing loss. I do not like the term hard of hearing because it does not describe who I am. It is the hearing people we must educate because most think we all use sign language. Most hearing people are not familiar with big “D” or lower case “d”, because to them it is all the same. Each person who has a hearing loss should speak up and tell the hearing population who you are. I have found some hearing people are also losing their hearing or know a friend or family member who has a hearing loss.

  2. I hear you Gael (pun intended)… I detest the label “Hard of Hearing”. I rarely use it anymore, but when I did use it, for lack of a better label, people would yell at me and talk to me like I had the intellect of a three year old.

    I moved on to “Hearing Impaired”… that is until I was reamed by a culturally Deaf person who said I couldn’t use that term because it groups both of us in the same category and I was very different from her. Okay, I get that, but why not say it in a nicer way?

    Then, I found the SayWhatClub and through talking to many there I realized that often I don’t label myself. I simply tell people, “I need to see you speak, I lipread/speechread.” — those two terms are at sometimes at war, also! So much friction!!

    I moved even farther along… I learned to become comfortable with calling myself “deaf”, because for all practical purposes, I am deaf. I have no usable hearing in my right ear and just a few low tones in my left ear, and I don’t wear hearing aids or cochlear implants.

    I’ve gotten pretty comfortable at not labeling myself unless it’s absolutely necessary, but when I do feel I need a label I use whatever is appropriate and works. “Hard of Hearing” and “Hearing Impaired” often cause a look of confusion on a person’s face — you can actually see them trying to work out what those labels mean — so I rarely use them.

    What is key? Flexibility and being comfortable when you make it known that you have a hearing loss.

    Hey, that reminds me of another thing I often do… if I can state that I have a hearing loss instead of labeling myself, I do it.

    1. Gael Hannan Author

      Thanks Michele. We always need words to describe things – not so much a label but a description, in as few words as possible, of who we are.
      I use the term speechreading because, as a seasonsed reader of faces and body lanugage, as well as being a speechreading instructor, I know that I’m looking at a person’s eyes, lips, teeth and tongue, facial expressions and body language…all at the speed of sound!

  3. I work in the field of deafness/Deafness, hoh, hearing loss in the educational setting. I am hearing impaired, I am hard of hearing and/or I have a hearing loss. The words come easily to me and I have no problem stating the fact that my ears don’t work properly but my brain does.

    I’ve always been a poor lipreader and cannot rely on it. However, my instincts, people’s body movements, facial expressions and knowing the “subject” matter always come through for me. I resent when people tell me that the words “hearing impairment” is not an acceptable term and not universally acceptable. I never received a survey asking me how I felt about the words. Nor did I get to vote on it being universally rejected.

    I honestly do not detest any of the words used to describe one’s hearing condition. After all, our hearing condition is owned by each of us and we have to be comfortable with the words we use to describe ourselves. What I really dislike, are people assuming that because I have a hearing loss, I must know how to sign. That I can benefit from a sign language interpreter vs. CART. That if I tried harder or focused or my favorite, “listened” I would understand what’s being said.

    Our focus should not be on how to describe our loss but rather to educate the hearing population. I always carry ear plugs (individually packaged) with me to educated parents of children with hearing loss. I do staff developments and use powerpoints and youtubes for staff to understand what different hearing losses sound like. It’s amazing to see the reactions on peoples faces when they see an audiogram with sounds and where the locations of the high pitched and low pitched sounds are as well as how high up on the audiogram they are.

    Education is really the answer. What we decide to call ourselves, is a private, individual matter and should not be decided by any universal group of people. I am comfortable with you whether you call yourself hoh, deaf, Deaf, hearing impaired, hearing loss, broken ears, or just simply, “I have trouble hearing.” Education is the key.


  4. Gael, this is so funny and so true. It made me laugh. It wasn’t until discovering SHHH in 1983 that I figured out…sort of…who I was/am, thanks to Rocky Stone, founder of SHHH. He was also able to laugh. All I knew then, was that I was not ‘normal’, but hey…neither were other people I knew who had other issues that were different from mine. Hearing loss entered my life when I was in college…and it changed the landscape considerably. I was told by medical doctors that I would never again be ‘normal’, that I had to live with this, and that I would be deaf by the time I was 40. Oh…and “don’t waste money on hearing aids because they don’t help. Just deal with it”. Needless to say, I was pretty much out put out in ‘left field’, meaning I didn’t have a clue where to go or what to do. Few days go by that I don’t realize how fortunate I am to be living in these times when hearing aids and cochlear implants, along with other assistive technologies, do make a difference. IF YOU USE THEM, and so many don’t or won’t. When I completed my master’s thesis as a non traditional student, age 55, I wrote about all of the above. One of the hardest things I had to figure out was terminology. How do you explain to professors (as in the general public) about all the idioms involved. Hard of Hearing, hard of hearing, deaf, Deaf, late deafened, hearing impaired, etc. It took pages to explain this. I finally declared myself ‘partially deaf’ at one point, and continue to believe that’s who I really am. Yes, it’s hard to hear. And, I do believe I have a disability, which might be an impairment, but I’m still pretty ‘normal’. Ye Gods! That decision to define myself as ‘partially deaf’ created some comments from those who simply hated the idea of interjecting one more term in all this confusion! I guess the bottom line in all of this is “I don’t hear well, and need some assistance that you may or may not be able to provide. Thank you for trying!” (And, if you won’t try, then…..”____”. I have always wondered how those of us who have become educators and advocates for people with ‘partial deafness’ could best spend our time…exactly what should we be doing! I truly believe that humor is a necessary ingredient in coping with whatever it is that we are. Most Important: Keep laughing!!!!

  5. Good info Gael! I lament too about hearing disability. I’ve tried to come to grips with it by saying I’m hearing challenged much like mobility challenged rather than using the word “crippled.” What about inventing new words that people will universally take for granted once it’s known? Say hearing “consumer”? As we see in hospitals and doctors’ clinics the word “patient” is being phased out and replaced with “client.” Keep up the good work!

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