Best of Gael Hannan: Lament for a HOH

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.

About Gael Hannan

Gael Hannan is a writer, speaker and advocate on hearing loss issues. In addition to her weekly blog for HearingHealthMatters.org, which has an international following, Gael wrote the acclaimed book "The Way I Hear It: A Life with Hearing Loss". She is regularly invited to present her uniquely humorous and insightful work to appreciative audiences around the world. Gael has received many awards for her work, which includes advocacy for a more inclusive society for people with hearing loss. She lives with her husband on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

14 Comments

  1. I like “hard of hearing” because I have a hard time hearing people. Among people I associate with normally I use HoH, but around strangers in temporary situations I simply identify as deaf. Since it’s usually in a noisy crowded environment I’m not lying. I think we focus too much on the words people use to label us and not enough on being who we are. I think part of the reason I find it frustrating with dealing with some people is in their insistence on “wearing” the right label. These days it seems personal labels are treated like Dior and Laboutin…the label is more important than the person. I like easy direct communication and to me “hard of hearing” is direct and easy to understand. For me, it’s not a label, it’s a tool to communicate my challenge. *I* am not the hoh person, I’m Angi, and I have a hard time hearing.

  2. I just saw this article and appreciate the points Gael makes. I usually describe myself as hard of hearing but this term might sound dated. However, I am certainly not deaf. If I were, I wouldn’t be able to use hearing aids because there wouldn’t be any hearing. Aids can’t work if there is no hearing. I have a severe to profound hearing loss. This makes hearing very difficult almost all the time. Under the right conditions, with people who speak clealy and not too soft, I can communicate quite well. When I go into a booth for the traditional hearing test, audiologists tell me I have very good speech discrimination. This doesn’t work in most situations.where there are background noises, poor pronunciation, people looking away when they talk, and generally lazy speaking. I can’t blame them though because most people who don’t have poor hearing can understand. I can’t so I am part of the group who have to struggle to hear. This seems to be more difficult in many ways than those are are just plain deaf because they don’t struggle with day to day conversation. You have to say, as Cathie points out, that you don’t hear very well because it is invisible. You look okay but you have to struggle to hear every single day.

  3. Using the term ‘hard-of-hearing’ has always been a block in relationships for me until my pastor recently suggested that I tell others that I don’t hear very well and it’s seems to have helped. But I have found that I need to take the initiative to let others know what I need from them, especially if I’m in a store. “You need to look at me when you speak, I don’t hear very well”, has been the current phrase I’ve been using and it has been well received. I’ve lived with this long enough to know that people; family and friends, still forget that I don’t hear well. I’ve learned to let the frustration go although it’s hard when I’m overtired and emotional. And there are those who don’t seem to care and that’s when I need to move on to someone else who will be more helpful. I do find that if I take the time to explain to others what the challenges are for someone with the level of hearing that requires the use of hearing aids and what’s needed to better able to communicate with others, then I’ve done my part to educate people in the community. However, there will always be someone who don’t know and so, by speaking to one person at a time the job gets done.

  4. Gael – I have used all of the mentioned- hard of hearing, hearing disabled, hearing loss but I honestly feel it dies not matter what we call ourselves until more people understand what we need in order to be able to hear them!……..I often think I’m noty the ONLY one who doesn’t hear because people turn away from me, after I have said I really need to see you face to better be able to read your lips….guess they didn’t hear me. They walk out of a room and continue to talk to me when I have said “I need to see you to hear” you. Guess they didn’t hear me.
    They cover their mouth with their hands or papers when I had said ” I really need to be able to see your face when you speak so I can underdstand and speech read. Guess they didn’t hear me! I’ve decided from now on when I have clearly stated what I need in order to be able to have a conversation with them and they chose to ignore my request – I just walk away thinking too bad for them because I’m a mighty interesting person and maybe they need to get their hearing checked. And years ago when I would have been hurt or insulted even , I would have taken the blame for not being able to hear but………..not anymore! My new motto is ‘I’m not saying sorry about my hearing –

    I shall now call myself a “soft of hearing” person (let’s try that and see if we like it better than hard of hearing)………I like it! Yes….. I think I really like it.

  5. I don’t like “hearing loss” because I haven’t lost my hearing. Or at least, not yet. I was born this way, as were four generations preceding me. It peeves me to no end to be described as a person with a hearing loss. This is my reality. This is my “normal”. This is the norm in my entire family. I use hard of hearing because it is the term I’m used to. I loathe “hearing impaired”. I grew up thinking everybody had tinnitus – waddaya mean there are actually people who don’t have it???? I’ve actually had a deaf person tell me that I should use the term hearing loss because that is what most people with hearing loss use. Maybe I will use it when/if I do actually lose some (or most) of my hearing, but for now, it does not fit me. Nor does it fit my family. Being “told” how to identify myself grates, just as it grates your ears whenever you hear the expression “hard of hearing”.
    Cathy.

  6. I lost all hearing over two years ago and it has been a tremendous challenge, including trying to understand and connect with others who, like me, can’t hear their children’s voices anymore. I have found it odd that the very people who understand me most–people who could once hear and now can’t, are chock-full of sensitivities that has made the connection with others who “understand” paradoxically more difficult. For example, being completely new to this I inadvertently used the dreaded “hearing impaired” remark in a remote footnote on my website and was called on it and publicly lambasted in a LinkedIn discussion group for my misstep. I actually has a Deaf person write-in that my “obvious lack of sensitivity” in a Deaf LinkedIn Discussion group was paramount “using the “N” word at an NAACP meeting.” — that’ a real quote from a person who prided himself on being a Deaf advocate. I was furious at that accusation and very hurt by it, especially in a public forum. Needless to say, I left that group and have been tainted ever since by the touchy sensitivities of people who I thought would be most likely to support my new and uncharted journey. So my take on this issue is that walking on egg shells about the verbiage of our dilemma has just made it harder for me.

  7. Hi Gael,
    I do have a hearing loss in both of my ears since birth. All my life I will tell people that I can’t hear and turned my head sideways or point my ear so they can see that I am wearing my hearing aid and then they will speak directly to me to understand them next time. I used to say that I was hard- of- hearing and the more I say that, I begin to hate those words. I wanted to change it to Hearing Impaired or say I can’t hear and turn my head sideways. I am happy the way I am now. I always say, let the hearing loss judge how they feel the way they label themselves as _________ not just called it a hard-of-hearing. May God Bless you.

  8. Great article. Isn’t it funny how different things affect us and make take a stand. How we define ourselves is a very deep subject to explore and worthy of attention; I sure appreciate reading your views.

    I became ‘hearing impaired’ at age 33, after the birth of my 4th child. I have a bi-lateral hearing loss from Otosclerosis with terrible tinnitus in my right ear, mild tinnitus in my left, and am now dealing with hyperacusis. I’ve got to tell you, when you’ve been able to hear very well and then suddenly (within 3 months) can’t hear your children speak or whisper in your ear, it changes your whole attitude about wearing hearing aids and getting surgery, let alone how you perceive yourself.

    I don’t care too much about being labeled because I know how this deficit impacts my functioning in a world where I am not part of the Deaf culture and I can’t function optimally in the ‘able-bodied’ world. So in thinking about all of this, I guess it really just boils down to how we feel about our self in terms of our ability to function in various settings/cultures.

    I am in no way ashamed of my disability and I certainly am hard of hearing; and so I just deal with it for what it is. I know that it doesn’t define who I am in terms of my capacity to grow as a human being. As a matter of fact, I am graduating with my master’s degree next month. It took me a long time to get through school because I’ve added other illnesses to the table, and they impede my health and functioning; but I did it, hearing loss and all!

  9. It has been 6 months since I have entered this community of deafened later in life, hoh, or hearing impaired and what I say when I have to expect a little help, is sorry, “I don’t hear very well” and have found that people are more than helpful. I had cochlear implant in May so am still learning my way around my programs, and the biggest challenge is out in the noisier environments. I am not comfortable yet with all the terminology. I am deaf without the device but haven’t learned ASL or other helps, as this happened very quickly. I just say what I am.

    1. Countrygirl
      Please never say “sorry” because you have a hearing loss; it is not your fault. Just say: I did not hear what you said, could you repeat it please?

  10. I see this issue in a different light. I believe we agonize too about semantics. I don’t see what’s gained by making somebody feel guilty or ashamed for using the term ‘hearing impaired’ to refer to themselves or others. Maybe we should start using – ‘differently auditory-enabled’ or ‘people of not so great hearing?!?’ Seriously, let’s redirect our energy to focus on how we present ourselves through our attitude and actions.

  11. Gael,
    How about saying I am “Hearing Challenged” and I can hear but not the same way as you. You need to face me and talk a little slower and a little clearer.

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