Who Is Deaf?

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Originally posted on April 30, 2014.

Those of us with hearing loss cheered one of our own, Seattle Seahawks football player Derrick Coleman, as he became a national exemplar in the U.S. for living with hearing loss. We reveled in the Super Bowl Duracell ad chronicling his life story.  And we felt a warm glow when he gifted twin New Jersey 9-year-old sisters with Super Bowl tickets and handwritten encouraging words:  “Even though we have hearing aids, we can still accomplish our goals and dreams!”

As 500,000+ Google links to “Deaf Seahawks fullback” testify, Coleman’s story inspires us.  The reports of Coleman’s “deafness” also raise an interesting question:  Who is deaf?

By using a combination of hearing aids and the natural lip reading that we all do, Coleman, despite his profound hearing loss, reportedly hears his quarterback call plays amid the din of the Seahawks stadium.  And he converses, as when amiably answering questions at a Super Bowl press session. In doing so, he is akin to millions of others who live well with hearing loss.

Without our hearing aids or cochlear implants, some of us among the world’s 360 million people with hearing loss become truly deaf—unable to hear normal conversation.  When I remove my hearing aids before showering in my college gym, the locker room banter goes nearly silent.  In bed at night without my aids, my wife’s voice from the adjacent pillow becomes indecipherable, unless she turns to speak into my ear.

So, in his everyday functioning, is Derrick Coleman “deaf”?

Am I deaf?  Are my friends in the hearing loss community deaf?

Partly out of respect for my nonhearing, signing cousins in the Deaf Culture, my answer is no:  I am not Deaf.  Like Deaf people who fluently communicate with Sign, a genuine language, I am also not disabled or “hearing impaired” (which labels a person).  Rather I am a person with hearing loss.  The Hearing Loss Association of America—“the nation’s voice for people with hearing loss”—offers resources that assist “people with hearing loss and their families to learn how to adjust to living with hearing loss [and] to eradicate the stigma associated with hearing loss”—and thus to live as not-deaf.

I asked the Association’s recently retired director, Brenda Battat, whose hearing was partially restored with a cochlear implant, if she considers herself deaf.  “No. From a life experience, functioning, and self-identity perspective I do not consider myself deaf.”

Ditto my friend, musician Richard Einhorn, who has a substantial hearing loss and was recently featured in a news story that was headlined: "Hearing Loops Give Music Back to Composer Who Went Deaf in a Day."

“The ‘deaf’ label is not accurate,” notes Einhorn, who uses various technologies to hear.  “With a good hearing aid and additional listening technology such as hearing loops, I can hear well enough in most situations to participate fully in conversations and enjoy live music, theater, and films.”

Thanks to new hearing technologies, most of us with hearing loss can effectively function as not-deaf.  My state-of-the-art hearing aids amplify sound selectively, depending on my loss at different frequencies.  They offer directionality.  They compress sound (raising soft sound and lowering extremely loud sound).  Via a neck-worn Bluetooth streamer, they wirelessly transmit phone conversation and music from my smart phone to both my hearing aids. And thanks to my favorite hearing technology—the hearing loops that broadcast PA sound wirelessly to my in-the-ear speakers (aka hearing aids)—I hear!

Ergo, while most natively Deaf people are served by Sign, the rest of us—the invisible majority with hearing loss—need hearing assistance.  We respect, but live outside of, the Deaf Culture.  We benefit from new hearing technologies.  Lumping all people with hearing loss together as “deaf” respects neither Deaf people nor those with hearing loss.  Here ye, hear ye!

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About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).