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12 Myths and Misconceptions About Deaf People

Carola has worked for agencies serving the hearing loss community for many years. She is also a freelance writer.

There are many myths and misconceptions about deaf people

There are many myths and misconceptions about deaf people

Despite TV shows depicting deaf people and the high profiles of deaf celebrities such as Marlee Matlin or Nyle DiMarco, many myths and misconceptions about people with profound hearing loss persist. Here are some of the most common myths and stereotypes out there in the hearing world and the reality of each situation.

Myths About Sign Language

1. Myth: Most Deaf People Communicate in Sign Language

Approximately 10% of people with hearing loss communicate in sign language as their first language. Some people who lose their hearing after learning English through illness or other causes prefer to speak or lipread.

2. Myth: Sign Language is Universal

Sign language is not universal and originated from various regions and countries. A few signs may vary from region to region. For example, American Sign Language is used in Canada, the U.S., and a few other places in the world. French Canadians have their own sign system influenced by both ASL and French Sign Language from France. Other countries have their own signing systems.

Myths About Deaf People

3. Myth: Most Deaf People Can Read Lips

Lipreading (sometimes called speech reading) is a difficult skill to acquire. Even the best lipreaders can catch less than 40 to 50% of what is being said. The percentage may be slightly higher if a deaf person knows the speaker well. Deaf people look at the context of the discernible words in the sentence to fill in the words they did not understand. Many mouth movements appear similar on the lips and may look the same to a deaf person.

Many hard-of-hearing people also read lips. Lipreading requires intense concentration to understand a speaker, and people will quickly tire during the process.

4. Myth: Deaf People Cannot Talk

Some people with severe hearing loss can speak well. This ability depends on many factors such as whether they are prelingually or post-lingually deaf and their educational background. Speech pathologists work with some deaf people to help them improve their speech. Many deaf people can speak and are not physically mute.

Some deaf people may choose not to talk because it is difficult for them to regulate the volume, pitch, or sound of their voices in a way that most people can understand. Deaf people do not want to be labeled as “deaf-mute” or "deaf and dumb" and reject the terms as inaccurate.

According to the book Deaf Heritage: A Narrative History of Deaf America by Jack Gannon, the Greek philosopher Aristotle used the expression “deaf and dumb” as a label for people with profound hearing loss. Aristotle felt that deaf people were not able to learn or reason.

Unfortunately, some hearing people falsely assume that people with hearing loss who do not speak well are not intelligent or have much going for them. In reality, there is no relationship between hearing loss and intelligence. Many deaf people lead successful, productive lives in many professions.

5. Myth: Deaf People Are Silent

“Deaf and dumb” has come to mean silent. However, the deaf are neither “dumb” nor “mute.” The TV and movie industry often depicts deaf people as silent. Deaf individuals are not always quiet, however. Many make sounds while they are signing. They may make noises to add meaning to manual communication.

Deaf people make natural sounds when they sign, such as when they are emphasizing a point or expressing intense emotions. They use certain sounds to communicate that are understood by their families, friends, or pets. For example, a hearing child who hears a certain loud sound such as stomping feet from their parents knows that they are in big trouble.

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6. Myth: Writing Notes Are Adequate Means of Communication

For some deaf people, English is a second language. Some only have about a Grade 4 level of English comprehension. Some deaf people struggle to understand written English, especially in highly stressful or emergency situations. A sign language interpreter is needed to facilitate communication if the deaf person's first language is sign.

7. Myth: People With Hearing Loss Will Hear If The Speaker Shouts

Shouting at a deaf person does not help them to understand a speaker. If a speaker increases the volume when he talks, his face becomes distorted, making his lips more difficult to lipread.

8. Myth: Deaf People Also Have Additional Disabilities

Some deaf people may also have additional challenges such as mental health issues or physical disabilities. However, most deaf people do not have additional conditions and do not require aids such as wheelchairs. Some see their deafness as a cultural identity and not a disability.

Some hearing people think that deaf people use Braille. Braille is an alphabet of raised dots on paper that helps blind and low vision people to read. Deaf people do not generally use it unless they also have vision problems. Deaf actress Marlee Matlin has said that she occasionally gets offered Braille menus in restaurants.

9. Myth: All Deaf And Hard Of Hearing Persons Benefit From Hearing Devices

Hearing aids amplify sound and may benefit some deaf people. Other people have hearing loss that distorts sounds, making sounds more difficult to understand. Amplification does not help them. Other people do not benefit from hearing aids at all, particularly if they do not have any residual hearing.

Cochlear implants are surgically implanted devices that can simulate hearing, but they are not a substitute for actual hearing. They do not work for everyone. The implants work best when implanted in young children. Older deaf people who are implanted may not know how to interpret what they are hearing and find the world bewildering with strange sounds they cannot identify.

10. Myth: Deaf People Can Be Defined As “Hearing Impaired.”

Many deaf people do not like the label of being “hearing impaired” and prefer the word “deaf.” Some want to be identified as members of the deaf community and capitalize the word "Deaf."

Some deaf people also object to the word “impaired,” which they feel implies that a person is flawed, deficient, or imperfect. “Hearing impaired” is a vague term and lumps people with different levels of hearing loss, communication modes, and cultural identities under one definition.

11. Myth: Deaf People Can’t Drive

Many deaf people do drive cars. Studies have shown that deaf people are better drivers than hearing people. Their peripheral vision is more highly developed than hearing people.

I have ridden in cars with deaf drivers who sign, and there are some differences from rides with hearing drivers. Because sign language is visual, the driver and I must wait until we stop at a red light before we can communicate.

12. Myth: Deaf People Cannot Achieve Much in the Workplace

Deaf people are just as capable as anyone else of being lawyers, doctors, managers, and CEOs. Some may need accommodations such as video relay services or special flashing lights on phones, or fire alarms. Their coworkers may need training in appropriate attention-getting and communication methods with deaf staff. Unfortunately, public misperceptions can create significant barriers to higher education and employment.

Concluding Thoughts

Many of these misconceptions and myths create barriers that hinder deaf people from fully participating in society. The public needs to be more educated about deafness. Deaf people often say that they can do everything but hear. For those who are interested in learning more about this unique group, I recommend the book Through Deaf Eyes: A Photographic History of an American Community by Douglas Baynton.


FAQ, General Information about the NAD, National Association of the Deaf
Stereotypes and Misconceptions About Deaf People, Deaf Education Worldwide
Top 10 misconceptions about Deaf people you need to know, Connect Hear
17 Misconceptions About People with Hearing Loss, Janice Schacter
Deafness Terminology & Myths, Florida Health
Debunked: Top 8 myths about deafness you need to know, Deaf Unity

© 2013 Carola Finch

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