Carola has worked for agencies serving the hearing loss community for many years. She is also a freelance writer.
Despite TV shows depicting deaf people and the high profiles of deaf celebrities such as Marlee Matlin or Nyle DiMarco, many myths and misconceptions persist about people with profound hearing loss. Here are some of the most common myths and stereotypes out there in the hearing world and the reality of each situation.
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 lose their hearing through illness or other causes after learning English and prefer to speak or lipread.
2. Myth: Most Deaf People Can Read Lips
Lipreading (sometimes called speech reading) is a difficult skill to acquire. Even the best lipreaders can catch only 25 to 30 percent of what is being said. The percentage may be a little 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 that 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.
3. 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 expression “deaf and dumb” was a label used by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. 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 a wide range of professions.
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4. Myth: Deaf People are Silent
“Deaf and dumb” has come to mean silent. The deaf, however, 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.
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Deaf people make natural sounds when they sign, such as when they are emphasizing a point or expressing intense emotions. Some deaf people 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 from their parents know that they are in big trouble.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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 a 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 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 that they cannot identify.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. Myth: 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.
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
Deafness Terminology & Myths, Florida Health
Debunked: Top 8 myths about deafness you need to know, Deaf Unity
© 2013 Carola Finch