Negative Terminology and the Deaf
Hearing people have English terms that they use for Deaf people
without really thinking about them. Although we may not mean to
offend, certain of these terms do have insulting overtones that we
may not be aware of. There are three specific phrases that I have in
mind: "deaf and dumb," "deaf mute," and "hearing impaired".
In today's vernacular, the most obviously offensive is "deaf and
dumb." When the phrase first began to be used, "dumb" was just
another way of saying "unable to talk," but as Jamie Berke writes,
"It has come to be viewed as an insult because over the years, the
'dumb' part came to refer to the deaf person's intelligence." In
fact, this one causes a lot of confusion in the Deaf community
because not everyone knows about this more obscure usage of the word
"dumb". Behind this link is a comment by some poor anonymous person
who pleads "I'm deaf but I sure am not dumb and I don't really think
any one is, we may not hear you or see you but we know all too well
what's going [on]." I think we should all let this term just fade
The next phrase, "deaf mute," might seem a bit more benign, but it
is still inaccurate and offensive. The authors of For Hearing People
Only (a wonderful question and answer book about Deaf Culture) write
that at one time both of these terms "reflected a common
misconception that deafness caused muteness. People believed that
deaf people couldn't speak, that they were incapable of speech."
This is simply not true. As Burke writes, "It has come to be viewed
as an insult because many if not most deaf people CAN learn to
talk." The inability to hear does not render one unable to speak,
and certainly not unable to communicate. My old professor Lyes
Bousseloub was born deaf but he can still utter certain key words
much better that I would have expected him to. As for communication,
I've been to a few Deaf socials and those people are more chatty
than most Hearing people I know. To tack on the word "mute" when
describing them is just a waste of breath.
Now we come to the last term, which actually took me by surprise
when I first learned about it. When we say "hearing impaired" we are
generally trying to be overly polite or politically correct. It is
is a four-syllable substitute for "deaf" which to the Hearing may
seem blunt and therefore rude. The Deaf, however, actually prefer
the term "deaf". "Hearing impaired" to them "implies that something
is broken and needs to be fixed" (Berke). They don't see themselves
as broken. They live full, rich lives and communicate with each
other eloquently. If you ever go to one of those Deaf social events,
you'll see that they have a lot of fun doing it too. If I ever have
to lose one of my senses, I hope it's my hearing. Oh, I'd better not
say that. I'm already partway there. It drives my wife crazy because
she has such a quiet voice, but I digress.
These terms are unpopular and do offend a lot of people, but not
everyone in the Deaf community is in total agreement. One woman by
the name of Ella Mae Lentz, for example, wants to reclaim the term
"deaf mute". In her vlog she uses ASL to explain her reasons. I will
repost here the two reasons she wrote in English:
"Number one: a literal translation of the common sign for DEAF, the
index finger covering the ear, then covering the mouth, is
DEAF-MUTE...yes, that's the root meaning, so literally many of us
have been saying we are 'Deaf mutes' proudly for a long time, smile.
Number two: For an oppressed group, it can be empowering to reclaim
for themselves negative terms about that group. Queer and Dyke are
degrading terms that have been reclaimed in empowering ways."
Lest you go around spouting that phrase, she cautions: "...BUT only
us can use that for ourselves. No no to the general public or media
or professionals who continue not to understand us or look down on
us...you do not yet know how to use 'Deaf mute' properly."
I think about it kind of like the "N" word. It's okay for black
people to say that about themselves, but if I go around saying it
I'm likely to get slapped or worse. You may argue that it doesn't
compare because of the horrible marginalized past that the African
Americans had to suffer, but Deaf people do have a culture too that
is distinct from the Hearing and has been overlooked for too long.
They've had to endure prejudices and unfair treatment. In For
Hearing People Only it tells about how one deaf man was pulled over
by a police officer and held at gunpoint because he was trying to
pull out the card that said he was deaf and he wasn't responding to
oral commands. That's an extreme example and unfortunate
misunderstanding but I think that it does well to highlight the many
difficulties that Deaf people face in a Hearing culture.
Some people might feel like it doesn't matter what spoken terms we
use to refer to the Deaf because they can't hear us anyway, but they
know. Deaf people have friends and family who can hear. Some of them
can read lips. And these words do have a way of meandering into the
printed media. More importantly, though, it's a matter of respect.
Whether or not they can hear us, we should treat people the way they
want to be treated. We should use the words that are appropriate.
After all, no matter how we communicate or what language we use,
we're all just human.
A note for the confused Hearing: In this blog entry you may have
noticed certain instances of capitalization for Hearing and Deaf.
This is for when I am referring to these two groups as a culture or
a member of that culture. I have used lowercase when referring to
the actual ability to hear or not.
Berke, Jamie. (2007, Dec. 21). How to avoid insulting Deaf people.
About.com: Deafness. The New York Times Company. Retrieved 26 March,
Lentz, Ella Mae. (2007, Feb. 21). Reclaiming "deaf mute". Ella's
Flashlight. Retrieved 26 March, 2008. <http://www.ellasflashlight.com/?p=8>
Moore, Mathew S. and Levitan, Linda. (2003). For hearing people
only. Rochester, NY: MSM Productions, LTD.