Who Cares What We Call Our Hearing Loss?

I’ve shocked myself. For the first time ever, I’ve told someone that I’m deaf.

Deaf – I’ve  never used that term to describe my hearing levels – or lack of.  For the first two thirds of my life, I described myself as hard of hearing. In the most recent third of my life, I use the term hearing loss, as in Hi, I’m a person with hearing loss. I have hearing loss, please speak up.

But lately, in pandemic-time, when I have to ask yet another masked salesperson or clerk to repeat themselves, I throw in an explanatory, “I’m deaf.”

The reason is simple. “Deaf” is snappy. It’s fast. ‘Hearing’ people know what it means – or think they do. But even if they have only the most basic knowledge of what it means to be deaf, they know this: I’m not understanding them say whatever it is they’re saying, as they moved their masked head around.

But if I say, excuse me, I have hearing loss, I feel as if I have to add some other qualifiers such as, I need to see your lips. And then the person does one of two things. They could look a little taken aback but tell me they’re not allowed to pull their mask down. In which case, I put on my aggrieved-person-with-disability look and say, Alrighty then, we have a problem. It goes to the next stage of trial-and-error conversation which involves guessing, pointing, and even help from someone else nearby who is 6’ away, who’s not bound by employee rules, and who can translate for me.

Or the clerk can pull down their mask a bit and we can finish our transaction in record time. 

Audiologically, I am deaf. It’s a fact. I have zip-nada-nothing in my unaided right ear. In my left ear, I am very-severe-to-very-profound (I put in ‘very’ twice just to emphasize the degree to which I cannot hear.) Without my hearing aid, I might hear a nearby door slam. Otherwise, I’m in a silent movie.

But with my wonderful hearing aid for my left ear and my fabulous cochlear implant on the right side, I am now bimodal. (What sort of response do you think I’d get if I pointed to my ear and said, excuse me, please face me, I’m bimodal?) With the enormous boost I get from these powerful devices, I’m no longer functionally deaf. I’m not fully ‘hearing’ either, as I need to read lips, use captions, streaming technology and pretty well anything that will enhance my hearing levels.

I seldom use ‘hard of hearing’ anymore because I think the term is goofy in today’s common speech. In centuries gone by, “hard” used to mean something that was difficult to accomplish and full of obstacles. An unsuccessful student was considered “hard to learn” and the writer Charles Dickens wrote “I have been very hard to sleep”. Today, ‘hard’ in the antiquated sense is used only to refer to hearing. I still use the term if I think that’s what someone will understand, but prefer to say ‘I have hearing loss’. Some people don’t like this term, because they never had any hearing to lose and you can’t argue with that. But I had very mild hearing loss at age two, but have since lost almost all of my high childhood hearing levels.

As an advocate for people with hearing loss, for those who are hard of hearing, hearing-impaired, deaf, late-deafened, deafened, and a little deaf, I don’t care how you self-identify. It shouldn’t matter to me, because I’m not you and I don’t have your life experience. It makes sense, then, that we shouldn’t shame other people for using terms that we think are not exactly correct. Instead, we should respect the fact that a person is revealing something personal about themselves and are looking for support.

What we need to know is the next part – what can we do to make communication happen between us, together, now.


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.


  1. I try to keep a pad of paper with me, so, I may ask the person to write out their questions.
    They often look sooo relieved.

  2. Hi Gael you said an earful about wearing mask. I have a hearing loss and wear a hearing aid in each ear but with the mask, the plexiglass, and people do not speak clearly I might as well be on another planet. I tell them I lip read and your mask blocks your speech please lower your mask. If they don’t then please write it down. I find they will accommodate you by lowering their mask.

  3. I usually tell people I’m hearing impaired. I wear two hearing aids. But, yeah, those masks make it hard to understand people. Can’t stand the black ones, those really block the sound. And if people pull them down for a minute to talk then it’s kinda like what’s the point of wearing them, they’re gonna transmit their germs to me! Then I won’t have to worry about being hearing-impaired. I like the clear mask, I wish more people would wear those.

    1. The clear masks are just starting to become more available. Hopefully they will one day be the standard! Except they are more expensive.

  4. Since this pandemic I now wear a pin indicating that I`m hard of hearing. For some reason some people seems to believe that I`m Deaf and they will make a special effort to make sure that have I understood. correctly. I d tell them differently . The bottom line is that I will continue to wear my pin when I go out.

  5. Thanks, Gail.
    I use “deaf” a lot.
    Like, “partly deaf”. It works much better than HoH because it’s short AND because people already know what “deaf” means. So we’re both starting at the same place.

    But one favor — I really hate it when people want to “solve” our communication problem by pulling down their masks. I’m 70. I have vulnerable lungs. I DO NOT want anyone pulling down their masks and blowing all their little aerosol droplets in my face. THAT threatens my health and my life. Nothing they have to say is worth that. Pulling down masks is NOT a solution for me. And I hate when people model it as a communication solution. It ups my risk level.
    Thanks for all your work!

    1. That is understandable, but if you are 6′ apart, would that help? Tell them not to lower the mask unless distance is involved.

    2. Thanks all of you for this conversation. I’m with you and recognize the advantage of using the deaf word if it facilitates the sales interaction. I guess I want to identify with the hearing world in principle and work hard to be there . . . until the MASKS!

  6. The other day I found myself getting ready to shout at a salesperson in a store where I was making a return. She kept asking me something thru her mask as she was looking down – there was a plexiglass shield between us too – and I could-not-understand-her-at-all! After asking her, “What?” about 5 times I got so flustered I almost, but not quite, shouted at her to speak up and face me. Turns out she was mumbling, “Is it damaged?” No, but I am! To my credit I didn’t say that. Before all this masking, distancing, shielding stuff started I did fairly well with my Baha implant on one side and hearing aid on the other. Now, like you, Gael, I’m trying to figure out how to identify myself. Never had to do it much before but I kind of like HOH just to watch people’s reactions. At least they might look up at me just to see what a real HOH looks like.

    1. Thanks, Sue. I have it figured out, but I wanted to normalize the fact there are many ways to self-identifying – but all of them require some follow up information to the people with whom we are communicating. We can’t expect\ people to know without being told what accommodations we need, because we are all different.

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