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Opinion: Deafness is a continuum. It's not all or nothing

Nikki Shaw says she uses the term 'deaf' because she has accepted her deafness, and because it helps her
hard of hearing deaf stock

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m deaf. I intentionally use the term ‘deaf’ rather than hearing impaired, hard of hearing or Deaf. 

Deaf, with a capital ‘D’ refers to people who are born Deaf, or become so prelingual (before they can speak). 

Hearing impaired, in contrast, is usually how the hearing community describe people with a hearing loss. As so we’re missing something, that we’ve lost it and that we’re not ‘normal’ as a result.

Hard of hearing is kind of in the middle. It describes the reality but doesn’t fully identify with either the Deaf or Hearing cultural perspectives on deafness.

The term ‘deaf’ is usually used by those of us who have accepted our deafness, but were late deafened (post lingual) and/or have a progressive loss. It’s not to say that we don’t have any residual hearing but that we’ve accepted having little, to no, hearing.

Deaf, deaf, hard of hearing or hearing impaired – we may, or may not, choose to use devices such as hearing aids, cochlear implants (CI) or bone anchored hearing aids (BAHA). They also may be completely useless and not viable options for us too.

Some of us have progressive loss and some us have loss that literally can be different day by day/moment by moment.

So why do I personally use the term ‘deaf’. I use it because I have accepted my deafness but also because it helps me. If I say that I’m hearing impaired the onus is on me to communicate. When I say that I’m deaf most people take the time to ask me about the best way of communicating with me and make sure that I can see them to lip-read.

However, as I speak very softly, as I ‘hear’ my own voice inside my head as much louder than it is heard by others, and I speak well and don’t have a typical ‘deaf’ accent thanks to hours and hours of speech therapy as a child many people don’t understand how deaf I am despite my using a service dog.

However, I never truly hear more than about 20-50 per cent of what is being said to me.

I guess!

I take the parts of the words that I hear, and I make up the rest.

I speech read. That means that I don’t just lip read but that I watch your whole body, your demeanor and mannerisms to give me clues as to what you’re saying.

In 2014, I reached the stage of being ‘legally deaf’, for tax purposes, in Canada. That means that I can no longer hear enough to ‘pass’ with just my hearing aids, but that I must rely on other forms of communication as well. In my case, that means that I now must be able to see people’s faces to ‘hear’ them and that a standard phone, always difficult, became impossible. It’s when I started needing a ‘service dog.

Thankfully I heard about the Canadian Hearing Society and have been fortunate enough to work with some fantastic staff at my local office who have helped me identify resources that help me specifically.

Which brings me back to my subject statement today. Deafness is a continuum. It’s not all or nothing.

Yes, there are culturally Deaf. They are comfortable with relay services and usually fluent in sign language.

Yes, there are people with normal or near normal hearing where a little bit of thought and speaking a little louder will help them.

However, there is huge community in between these two points where our deafness is at different points.

We can hear some frequencies and not others.

Amplification helps some and not others.

In fact, hearing aids, CIs and BAHA’s have a couple of major problems that the hearing community don’t seem to understand. They only work when we use them! As soon as we take them off; which we must do to shower, swim, sleep or just give our ears and brains a rest – we’re still deaf.

They don’t make our hearing ‘normal’. They just give more feedback to our brains that we must interpret. Our brains must learn to understand and interpret what we ‘hear’.

So please understand that when I say, “I don’t use the telephone, please text or email me instead", I’m not saying it to inconvenience you. I’m simply informing you that this is how I need to communicate.

So, if you’re somebody who must communicate with people as part of your job please don’t assume that everybody can either use the telephone or is Deaf. Please make sure that you have alternative forms of communication such as text, secure online messaging, or email available.

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About the Author: Nikki Shaw

Nikki Shaw is an adult immigrant to Canada, from England; having published academically since the 1990s she is now enjoying the luxury of freelance journalism.
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