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April is Deaf History Month

The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) invites all to celebrate Deaf History in the month of April.

NAD is a civil rights organization of, by, and for deaf and hard of hearing individuals to support their community with the following priorities:

  • Well-being of Deaf Youth
  • Equity in Deaf Education
  • American Sign Language (ASL) Resources for Babies
  • Deaf Senior Issues
  • Dismantling Racism in the Deaf Community
  • Hanna Interpreting Services supports the Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities by providing in-person, telephone, and virtual interpretation services as well as captioning and voice-over support. In honor of National Deaf History Month, we would like to answer some common questions about deafness and celebrate notable people with deafness or hearing loss.

What is the difference between hearing impairment, hearing loss, hard of hearing, and deaf?

How someone identifies can be related to the level of hearing, age of onset, educational background, communication methods, and cultural identity. It can also relate to someone’s connection to American Sign Language or connection to the Deaf community and culture.

  • Deaf refers to severe hearing loss with little to no functional hearing. The lowercase deaf is used when referring to the condition of not hearing while the capitalized Deaf indicates a group of people who share a condition and culture.
  • Hard of Hearing (HOH) is used when there may be some hearing function, often with the aid of a device that helps process speech or sound.
  • Deafened or late-deafened is used to describe someone who developed the condition later in life or as an adult. 
  • Deaf-blind or Deafblind indicates that someone also has some degree of vision loss. 
  • CODA is an acronym for “child of deaf adult(s)” and refers to a hearing person who has a deaf parent(s) or guardian(s). The use of child is in regard to the family relationship rather than age. 

It is considered outdated and offensive to use the phrase Hearing Impaired. It was previously used to describe any level of hearing loss from mild to profound, but the “impaired” is a negative term focusing on what people can’t do. The phrase implies that something is damaged, hindered, substandard, or needs to be fixed, and should not be used in relation to hearing, visual, or mobility.  

According to the NAD website, it is often appropriate to use Deaf or Hard of Hearing together. However, it is best to ask someone their preference for how they wish to be identified. 

What causes deafness and hearing loss?

Hearing loss and deafness can be congenital (present at birth) or it can appear sometime later in life, either as a delayed onset or acquired condition.  The condition can vary greatly, occurring in one or both ears, before or after someone learns to speak, with progressive or sudden onset, and with fluctuating or consistent symptoms. 

The degree of hearing loss can also vary. An individual might have difficulty hearing soft sounds and speech, making their condition mild. Others may not have the ability to hear any speech and can only detect sound at an extremely high volume, making their hearing loss profound. 

Are there different types of hearing loss?

Conductive hearing loss occurs when sound cannot get through the outer and middle part of the year causing difficulty hearing certain sounds. In most cases of conductive hearing loss, the condition can be reversed or decreased with medicine or surgery.

Sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL) is the result of a lesion, damage, or disease of the inner ear or the auditory nerve. In many cases, the loss of hearing cannot be undone by medicine or surgery, although hearing aids may support some hearing functions.

Mixed hearing loss is when conductive and sensorineural hearing loss occur simultaneously. An audiologist may be able to help in these instances. 

Auditory neuropathy spectrum disorder is a condition where the ear detects sound but has problems sending it to the brain, resulting in difficulty telling one sound from another or trouble understanding speech.

Tinnitus is a hearing-related condition where a person perceives a sound that does not have an external source. It can present as a ringing, buzzing, or roaring sound. Tinnitus can have varying degrees of intensity, volume, and duration. It usually presents as the result of noise exposure, medications, infections, injuries, and age-related hearing loss. There are some treatments to alleviate the symptoms of tinnitus. 

Age-related hearing loss is called Presbycusis. It is a common condition that occurs gradually as people grow older, so it might not be noticed until the hearing loss is significant. High blood pressure and diabetes can increase the likelihood of presbycusis.

What are some of the ways people who are deaf, deafened, or hard of hearing communicate?

Cochlear implants, hearing aids, or other assisted listening devices can be used to support or improve hearing. Such devices are not always effective or available, and some people choose not to use them for personal and cultural reasons. 

Sign Language is a manual form of communication that utilizes gestures, movements, facial expressions, body language, and symbols in an organized way. The structure can change between countries and cultures, so it is important to know that sign language is not universal. Most people in the United States use American Sign Language. 

Lipreading or Speechreading is when someone watches the movements of the mouth along with facial expressions, gestures, body language, and surroundings to help them understand what is being said. 

Captioning is when audio content such as words or sounds are converted to text to make content more accessible for individuals who are deaf or cannot hear. Subtitles are different in that they are used to provide accessibility between different languages rather than for hearing-related purposes. 

Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf (TDD) and Text Telephones (TT) are used to facilitate communication through a telephone or other telecom device. 

 How many people have hearing loss? 

Nearly 12% of the US population has significant hearing loss. There are around 32 million children around the world under the age of 15 who have hearing loss. One in every three people over the age of 65 (165 million people worldwide) will experience hearing loss later in life.

Are there any famous people who are deaf or hard of hearing? 

Yes! There are many famous people and major contributors to our society who are deaf or hard of hearing, including inventors, actors, musicians, athletes, and more! Here are just a few names you might recognize:

Thomas Edison developed hearing difficulties in early childhood which led to deafness by his teen years. However, this inventor found deafness to allow for great levels of concentration, which helped him invent the lightbulb and electric power generation systems.

Hellen Keller became deaf, blind, and mute at 18 months due to a contracted illness called Brain Fever. With the help of mentor and guide Anne Sullivan, Keller learned to communicate and became the first Deafblind person to achieve a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girls Scouts of America, became deaf after a series of childhood illnesses.

Sue Thomas is a famous lipreader for the FBI and a renowned public speaker on the topics of education, deafness, and multiple sclerosis. She became deaf before the age of 2. 

Linda Bove introduced many children to American Sign Language and the Deaf community through her role as a librarian on Sesame Street.

Actress Jane Lynch has nerve deafness in one ear and is unable to use hearing aids. She is most known for her performances on Friends, Glee, and Wreck-It Ralph.

Marlee Matlin is an Academy Award-winning actress who advocates for deaf actors portraying deaf characters for authenticity, representation, and respect for the deaf community.

Lou Ferrigno, also known as The Incredible Hulk, lost nearly 80% of his hearing and developed a speech impediment as a result of frequent ear infections before the age of three.

At Gallaudet University in 1892, the football huddle was invented by deaf quarterback Paul Hubbard.

Many of the hand signs used in baseball were established by William Ellsworth Hoy, the first deaf player in major league baseball.

Olympic Gold medalist Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim across the English Channel despite deafness brought on by early childhood measles.

Many people are aware of his deafness since Ludwig Van Beethoven is among the most well-known composers in the world. Beethoven’s hearing loss began at age 26 and he was likely completely deaf by age 52. Yet, he composed his most recognized (Fur Elise & Moonlight Sonata) and greatest classical pieces (his Fifth and Ninth Symphonies) after he lost his hearing.

Singer/songwriter Mandy Harvey appeared on the twelfth season of America’s Got Talent, winning the Golden Buzzer and placing fourth in the competition. Mandy became profoundly deaf after an illness at the age of 18.

Many musicians experience a form of hearing loss or a hearing impairment called tinnitus which can cause ringing, roaring, and buzzing sounds. The long list includes Chris Martin (Coldplay), Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys), Moby, Ozzy Osbourne, Pete Townsend (The Who), Will.i.am (The Black Eyed Peas), and Lars Ulrich (Metallica). Other artists have experienced temporary hearing loss, including Neil Young, Phil Collins, Grimes, Huey Lewis, and AC/DC.

How can I learn more? 

National Deaf History Month and Deaf Awareness Week (in May) are great ways to learn about and connect with the Deaf and HOH community.  The internet has a vast amount of information available but be sure to use reputable sites. Here are some of the resources we used to write this article:

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)
National Association of the Deaf (NAD)
Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA)
Deaf Professional Arts Network (DPAN)
Described and Captioned Media Program (DCMP)
Center for Disease Control (CDC) & the Mayo Clinic
History of the Deaf (Britannica)

There are organizations and institutions that support the civil rights and social, economic, and educational welfare of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities. These organizations may have information for you to learn more.*

Association of Late-Deafened Adults (ALDA)
Intertribal Deaf Council
National Asian Deaf Congress
National Black Deaf Advocates (NBDA)
National Council of Hispan Deaf and Hard of Hearing
World Federation of the Deaf
Hearing Loss Association of America
Alexander Graham Bell Association
American Society for the Deaf
Gallaudet University
Alexander Graham Bell Academy for Listening and Spoken Languages
Cochlear Implant Awareness Foundation
Hands and Voices
Children of Deaf Adults (CODA) and Kids of Deaf Adults (KODA)
USA Deaf Sports Federation
The Rainbow Alliance of the Deaf (RAD)
The Deaf Queer Resource Center (DQRC)
Deaf Women United
Pink Wings of Hope

 Closing Thoughts

Ensuring access to an ASL interpreter is one of the most important ways you can provide an inclusive and equitable experience. Hanna Interpreting Services has ASL interpreters who can support your conversations in person and virtually. Contact us today and we’ll help determine how we can help you meet the needs of your community.

* The intention of this post is connection and information sharing. No medical, legal, or social advice is intended or implied. The organizations and resources listed were not vetted nor is endorsement intended or implied. The article was reviewed by a HANNA ASL Interpreter to ensure cultural awareness and sensitivity.