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International deaf accessibility symbol

The word deaf is most often associated with two meanings[1]:

  • The first could be considered controversial but is traditionally known as partially or wholly lacking hearing. To someone who is deaf being defined as what they are not could be felt as offensive. As an analogy to demonstrate this more clearly, a woman might be offended if she was supplied a definition of a "woman" as being "someone who is not a man". To this effect an alternate definition for deaf could be one whose natural or primary language is sign language.
  • The second definition of the word Deaf (often separated as having a capital D). Deaf can be used in reference to individuals who see themselves as part of or relating to Deaf culture [2].

The global deaf population is roughly estimated to be 0.1% of the total population (1 in 1000). [3] The figure is likely to be higher in developing countries than developed countries due to restricted access to health care, and, in some cultures, due to the high rate of intrafamilial marriages, as in some of the Beduin tribes in the southern part of Israel. Worldwide, at least 5% of the population (1 in 20) is estimated to have less than average hearing.[How to reference and link to summary or text] The great majority of people with less than average hearing are elderly or developed hearing loss after leaving school. [4]

A minority of deaf people are part of Deaf culture. They are mostly either individuals who were born deaf (Pre-lingual) or became deaf at an early age (Peri-lingual or Post-lingual) and who have a "severe or profound hearing loss" or are children of deaf parents. Members of Deaf culture use sign language as their primary language and often emphatically see themselves as not disabled, but rather as members of a cultural or language minority. Members of this group use Deaf as a label of cultural identity much more than as an expression of hearing status.

Deafness is not limited to humans, but can also occur in other animals.


Deaf vs. Hard of Hearing

Deaf generally implies a profound loss of hearing; someone with a partial loss of hearing is more likely to be referred to as hard of hearing or the qualified partially deaf.

The term hard of hearing may be used to describe all degrees of hearing loss up to and including total deafness. In the case of profound deafness this may be political correctness, a euphemism for the simpler and accurate "deaf".

Total deafness is quite rare; most deaf people can hear a little[How to reference and link to summary or text], but since hearing loss is generally frequency-based rather than amplitude-based, a deaf person's hearing may not be usable, if the normal frequencies of speech lie in the impaired range.

People with a moderate hearing loss, of about 60 dB, generally describe themselves as "partially deaf". Others who were born hearing, but who have partially lost their hearing through illness or injury are "deafened". Those with a slight hearing loss (eg. about 30-40 dB hearing loss), or have lost some of their hearing in old age may prefer an informal term such as "hard of hearing".

Those with some functional hearing generally do not take part in the Deaf community, and typically work and socialize with hearing people to the best of their ability. People with all degrees of hearing impairment may encounter discrimination when looking for work socializing with hearing people.

Other meanings of 'deaf'

  • Deaf is also used as a colloquialism to refer to a recalcitrant individual or someone unwilling to listen, obey or acknowledge an authority or partner. The third line of Shakespear's Sonnet 29 provides an example:
"When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,"

As an acronym

  • The acronym DEAF is also used to refer to the Deaf Equipment Acquisition Fund.

Categories of deafness and hearing impairment

These categories may be overlapping. Deafness or hearing impairment may be:

Age of onset is also a significant factor.

See also

References & Bibliography

Key texts


  • Conrad, R. (1979) The Deaf School Child, London: Harper & Row


Additional material



External links

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