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American Sign Language: Negative Terminology and the Deaf:

Plato Clifford

Negative Terminology and the Deaf

Hearing people have English terms that they use for Deaf people without really thinking about them. Although we may not mean to offend, certain of these terms do have insulting overtones that we may not be aware of. There are three specific phrases that I have in mind: "deaf and dumb," "deaf mute," and "hearing impaired".

In today's vernacular, the most obviously offensive is "deaf and dumb." When the phrase first began to be used, "dumb" was just another way of saying "unable to talk," but as Jamie Berke writes, "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." In fact, this one causes a lot of confusion in the Deaf community because not everyone knows about this more obscure usage of the word "dumb". Behind this link is a comment by some poor anonymous person who pleads "I'm deaf but I sure am not dumb and I don't really think any one is, we may not hear you or see you but we know all too well what's going [on]." I think we should all let this term just fade into obscurity.

The next phrase, "deaf mute," might seem a bit more benign, but it is still inaccurate and offensive. The authors of For Hearing People Only (a wonderful question and answer book about Deaf Culture) write that at one time both of these terms "reflected a common misconception that deafness caused muteness. People believed that deaf people couldn't speak, that they were incapable of speech." This is simply not true. As Burke writes, "It has come to be viewed as an insult because many if not most deaf people CAN learn to talk." The inability to hear does not render one unable to speak, and certainly not unable to communicate. My old professor Lyes Bousseloub was born deaf but he can still utter certain key words much better that I would have expected him to. As for communication, I've been to a few Deaf socials and those people are more chatty than most Hearing people I know. To tack on the word "mute" when describing them is just a waste of breath.

Now we come to the last term, which actually took me by surprise when I first learned about it. When we say "hearing impaired" we are generally trying to be overly polite or politically correct. It is is a four-syllable substitute for "deaf" which to the Hearing may seem blunt and therefore rude. The Deaf, however, actually prefer the term "deaf". "Hearing impaired" to them "implies that something is broken and needs to be fixed" (Berke). They don't see themselves as broken. They live full, rich lives and communicate with each other eloquently. If you ever go to one of those Deaf social events, you'll see that they have a lot of fun doing it too. If I ever have to lose one of my senses, I hope it's my hearing. Oh, I'd better not say that. I'm already partway there. It drives my wife crazy because she has such a quiet voice, but I digress.

These terms are unpopular and do offend a lot of people, but not everyone in the Deaf community is in total agreement. One woman by the name of Ella Mae Lentz, for example, wants to reclaim the term "deaf mute". In her vlog she uses ASL to explain her reasons. I will repost here the two reasons she wrote in English:

"Number one: a literal translation of the common sign for DEAF, the index finger covering the ear, then covering the mouth, is DEAF-MUTE...yes, that's the root meaning, so literally many of us have been saying we are 'Deaf mutes' proudly for a long time, smile.

Number two: For an oppressed group, it can be empowering to reclaim for themselves negative terms about that group. Queer and Dyke are degrading terms that have been reclaimed in empowering ways."

Lest you go around spouting that phrase, she cautions: "...BUT only us can use that for ourselves. No no to the general public or media or professionals who continue not to understand us or look down on do not yet know how to use 'Deaf mute' properly."

I think about it kind of like the "N" word. It's okay for black people to say that about themselves, but if I go around saying it I'm likely to get slapped or worse. You may argue that it doesn't compare because of the horrible marginalized past that the African Americans had to suffer, but Deaf people do have a culture too that is distinct from the Hearing and has been overlooked for too long. They've had to endure prejudices and unfair treatment. In For Hearing People Only it tells about how one deaf man was pulled over by a police officer and held at gunpoint because he was trying to pull out the card that said he was deaf and he wasn't responding to oral commands. That's an extreme example and unfortunate misunderstanding but I think that it does well to highlight the many difficulties that Deaf people face in a Hearing culture.

Some people might feel like it doesn't matter what spoken terms we use to refer to the Deaf because they can't hear us anyway, but they know. Deaf people have friends and family who can hear. Some of them can read lips. And these words do have a way of meandering into the printed media. More importantly, though, it's a matter of respect. Whether or not they can hear us, we should treat people the way they want to be treated. We should use the words that are appropriate. After all, no matter how we communicate or what language we use, we're all just human.

A note for the confused Hearing: In this blog entry you may have noticed certain instances of capitalization for Hearing and Deaf. This is for when I am referring to these two groups as a culture or a member of that culture. I have used lowercase when referring to the actual ability to hear or not.

Works Cited

Berke, Jamie. (2007, Dec. 21). How to avoid insulting Deaf people. Deafness. The New York Times Company. Retrieved 26 March, 2008. <> .

Lentz, Ella Mae. (2007, Feb. 21). Reclaiming "deaf mute". Ella's Flashlight. Retrieved 26 March, 2008. <> .

Moore, Mathew S. and Levitan, Linda. (2003). For hearing people only. Rochester, NY: MSM Productions, LTD.


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