How should we describe deaf children?

NDCS - Ian Noon, Head of Policy and Research

Ian Noon, Head of Policy and Research

“To be or not to be, that is the question.”

It’s a good thing Hamlet never had any problems with his hearing as the question might have been a lot more complicated:

“To be deaf, partially hearing, hard of hearing, hearing impaired, with a hearing loss or not to be any of the above, that is the question.”

Yes, that old chestnut – how should we refer to deaf children and young people – has cropped up again. This time it’s because of a Department for Education (England) consultation on “data descriptors”. In other words, the Department want to come up with agreed terminology for when it goes about collecting data on children with special educational needs and disability. Currently, the Department is proposing to continue to use the term ‘hearing impairment’.

NDCS generally uses the term ‘deaf’ to refer to any child with any level of hearing loss unless there are very good reasons why not. As a deaf person myself, I personally hate to be referred to as hearing impaired. This is mainly because it follows a medical model of disability and also I don’t wish to go through life basically being referred to as if I were damaged goods. I am more than just my wonky ears.

The challenge for us though is that many professionals use the term ‘hearing impaired’. Rightly or wrongly, many somehow link ‘deaf’ with being a sign language user or being profoundly deaf. I remember being at a conference once and asking a teacher if they had any deaf children in their school. She said “no but I do have a child with a hearing aid.” I bit my tongue and instead patiently explained that we take deaf to have a wider meaning.

So how should NDCS respond to this consultation?

Should we insist that the Department use the term ‘deaf’? As much as I think they should, the big worry is that, if we do, lots of deaf children will end up being missed in the statistics because the teacher who doesn’t have a deaf child but does have a child with a hearing aid ends up not including that child in their records. That could lead to the number of deaf children being miscounted and possibly even support being cut over the long-term. A principled approach may not be in the best interests of deaf children.

Do we concede that ‘hearing impairment’ can be used, knowing that it’s offensive to some deaf people and potentially perpetuates a negative view of deaf children? Using ‘hearing impairment’ also makes it harder over the long-term to change people’s vocabulary.

Or is there a third way? Hearing loss? Hard of hearing? Wonky ears? Is there a term we can all unite behind?

NDCS is going to have a good think. In the meantime, it’d be great to hear people’s views – have your say in the comment box or vote in our blog poll. It’s a big hot potato and we know there are lots of strong views on it. We’ll report back in September on what we did in the end.

11 thoughts on “How should we describe deaf children?

  1. I agree with your comments on hearing impaired. I disagree with using deaf for “all levels of hearing loss” because of the long term implications for self-identity, and how the word itself can lead to misunderstanding due to its wide scope of meaning (including its use by the Deaf), and because it is phonologically linked to the word for death (especially if you can’t hear the higher frequency speech components), and its historically/culturally pejorative usage (“Are you deaf?”, “deaf and dumb”).

    Also you should avoid using “hearing loss” because a child may not have ‘lost’ hearing, and humans are naturally averse to concepts of loss. It always implies things should be different: not helpful if you have no control over the matter.

    So you have to establish what the PURPOSE of the terminology is. Labelling splits people into an in-groups (approved by a wider social group) and an out-group (considered “deviant” by a wider social group). You do not want children growing up to feel they are outsiders, or to send a signal to society that they are. They should be fully integrated. Instead you want you want to use terminology that can SEND A SIGNAL TO OTHERS as to how they should relate to your children. What do your children need from wider society? From education? From government? Don’t weaken them with your language; empower them.

    I wonder whether a starting point, then, would be what form of communication they prefer. So if they prefer visual communication (sign language, written word, lip reading), something like “visio-centric” (as opposed to “audio-centric”).

    If they prefer to communicate aurally, but need assistance (eg hearing aids), perhaps something “hearing-assisted”.

    That way you are not separating into groups of “better/worse” or “normal/abnormal”. You are providing clues as to how others should try to connect with them.

    Would be happy to brainstorm further as aware this is just a comments box.


  2. My American friends self-describe as ‘DHH’ (Deaf/Hard of Hearing) which seems to cover most bases and avoids causing confusion in the minds of non-Deaf people about the degree to which one’s hearing needs to be affected before ‘Deaf’ becomes the apposite label. Also avoids the ‘loss’ and ‘impairment’ problems. But as a non-Deaf person myself, I realise I may have missed something…


  3. I agree with the confusion over labels but unfortunately most hearing people equate “deaf” as being profoundly deaf. My daughter can hear with hearing aids and is fully oral so it then confuses people who think she wouldn’t be able to hear anything. Hearing impaired implies that she has hearing but it is. To prefect, which is the case, so I tend to use that term, or I say “severely deaf” so they know from the outset it’s. Or profound. Maybe “deaf” with a descriptor is the most useful eg mildy deaf or severely deaf?????


  4. Sorry, awful typos above. Should read ..”but it is not perfect” and also “from the outset it’s not profound.” Can’t edit it, sorry!


  5. I think it’s so much more kind and simpler telling them “You are deaf”; be it, embrace it, so that you saves the child from a childhood and adolescence (in some cases, a lifetime) of trying to NOT to be “hearing impaired” sucking in all your attention effort and concern and eventually eat your identity/confidence/education, even up. For those who signs and are culturally deaf, there’s the capital-D Deaf.
    If there are some people with light deafness, I would imagine the issue of disclosure will crop up much more rarely, and if it happen, they can just go ” Say it again, my ears’ a little rusty, hehe” or tell a little joke like that 🙂 But don’t get me wrong, this scenario of trivialising your own deafness should never be forced up the scale to those who are more deaf or those who this deafness affect more frequently (say, at least once for every single conversation held in an average day.) Cos, you know, one day the kid’s gonna run out of jokes.

    I know parents want their kid to be like themselves and speak and sing. But please, be kind to your own kid and put what they needed the most first – a strong sense of clarity about one’s own identity that is not damaging or burdening.


  6. Don’t pigeon hole everyone with hearing loss. Some are deaf,other hearing impaired,others with hearing loss. This consultation is no doubt a way to get out of paying for statemented or SEN children.


  7. Raised hearing levels! Just raised hearing….it is! My daughter was born this way, no impairment, she’s very intelligent, not disabled, not deaf….she hears with her amps ( our word for hearing aids), no hearing loss…she hasn’t lost anything….!


  8. I want to be included in formal consultation. I have written an article that needs to be read by those wanting to use terminology. I do not want my daughter to feel labelled as different to me. I do kit want her to self identify with deaf as she is not…and certainly, never disabled. There is more to say, but not here. Please invite me to a formal discussion, I am trained in diversity and an educator and have worked in strategic, corporate roles. With regards!


    • Hi Sarah

      The blog itself includes a link to the Department for Education consultation – just click on consultation for details of how to respond.




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