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!”
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.