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Negative Terminology About Deafness

How to Avoid Insulting Deaf People

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Updated October 04, 2010

Long ago, there were several terms used to describe deafness, or refer to deafness as a disability. At the time those terms were accepted by both deaf and hearing people. Over the years they came to be viewed as derogatory, insulting terms.

What were these words and terms? Here are some of them:

  • Deaf-mute - This term was used to mean that the deaf person could not talk. It has come to be viewed as an insult because many if not most deaf people CAN learn to talk.
  • Deaf and Dumb - This term was also used to mean that a deaf person could not talk. 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. It was very widely used - even Gallaudet University began as the "Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind."
  • Dummy - Another word that was used to refer to deaf people. It too meant the deaf person could not talk. Nowadays "dummy" means someone without intelligence.
  • Hearing Impaired - While this term is not quite as insulting as the other terms, it too is objected to by many deaf people. The "impaired" part implies that something is broken and needs to be fixed. The preferred term is "deaf and hard of hearing."
  • Oral failure - This term was used to refer to a deaf person who was not able to learn through the oral method.
  • Affliction and suffering - This refers to the deaf person as being afflicted with, or suffering from, deafness. It evokes an image of a person to be pitied.
  • Handicapped - While this term was widely accepted long ago, today it has negative connotations. The preferred term is "disabled."
Why is negative terminology harmful? It is harmful because of the impression it creates in the minds of readers. For instance, a hearing person who has read negative terminology and who has never met a deaf person, may assume that the first deaf person they meet can not talk, or does not have much intelligence.

You won't see these negative terms used often in American news stories. Most American journalists already know not to use these terms. In fact, years ago when I was reading a guidebook for journalists, it had a section on negative terminology. However, if (for example) you search the web for news stories containing the term "deaf and dumb" results will consist primarily of articles from foreign sources, especially developing countries.

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