What’s the Difference Between Deaf and Hard of Hearing?

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 5% of the global population has some form of hearing loss. While deaf and hard of hearing are medical terms used to describe people with some form of hearing loss, they aren’t interchangeable and can vary in both medical and cultural definitions.

Levels of Hearing Loss

A man on a stage doing sign language

The main difference between patients classified as deaf or hard of hearing is the degree of their hearing loss. A decibel (dB) and hearing loss (HL) scale are used to measure the varying levels of hearing loss. Audiologists categorize hearing loss into five levels:

Mild hearing loss occurs when people can hardly hear soft and subtle sounds, such as birds chirping. Those in this category have a hearing loss range between 26 and 40 dB HL.

Moderate hearing loss describes difficulties hearing normal volume speech or sounds. Hearing aids can help improve hearing ability. For moderate hearing loss, the range is between 41 and 55 dB HL.

Moderately severe hearing loss categorizes those as loss slightly above moderate level but not difficult enough to be categorized as severe. The hearing loss range is 56 to 70 dB HL.

Severe hearing loss is defined as not hearing normal volume speech and only loud sounds. Those with severe hearing loss have hearing loss range from 71 to 90 dB HL.

Profound hearing loss means strictly only loud sounds are audible. In some situations, no sounds at all can be heard. The hearing loss range is above 91 dB HL. Those with severe to profound hearing loss may use cochlear implants to help stimulate the auditory nerve and help give a sensation of sound.

Cultural Distinctions

Apart from the medical differences between deaf and hard of hearing, there are cultural distinctions as well. Unlike the medical definition of hearing loss, cultural definitions don’t pinpoint how much the person can hear; instead, the focus is on identifying themselves. For example, many people who meet the medical definition of hard of hearing may actually identify themselves as culturally deaf.

Common cultural differences between individuals who are deaf or have profound hearing loss are indicated by which variation of the word “deaf” they identify with:

Deaf With a Capital “D”

Deaf, written with a capital “D,” refers to one with hearing loss and identifies as culturally Deaf. They are likely engaged and active in the Deaf community and share a common culture and sign language. Those identifying as Deaf can be born deaf, have family members who are deaf, or have lost their hearing later in life. They usually have attended programs or schools specifically for the Deaf community.

Deaf With a Lowercase “d”

Deaf, written with a lowercase “d,” indicates the physical condition of hearing loss. Those who identify as deaf may have been born to hearing parents and didn’t have much exposure to the Deaf community, unlike those who identify as Deaf. They also may not use sign language as their primary language.

Of course, every individual’s experience is unique, and this isn’t meant to be a sweeping generalization of every deaf person’s lived experience.

Hard of Hearing

Hard of hearing is a term used to describe anyone with mild to moderate hearing loss. Many don’t use sign language as their first language, but others may. Depending on their individual preference and experience, they may identify as Deaf, deaf, or hard of hearing.

Contact Our Audiologists

The audiologists at Associated Hearing Professionals can identify your degree of hearing with a hearing test and recommend the right treatment device to help improve hearing and quality of life. We offer a variety of top-of-the-line hearing aids to patients across the Chesterfield and St. Louis, MO area. Contact us today to schedule your appointment.