The issue

How do we define deafness?

Our position

Deafness is “medically” defined by the extent of loss of functional hearing and by dependence upon visual communication.

The Canadian Association of the Deaf-Association des Sourds du Canada recognizes a person to be medically/audiologically deaf when that person has little or no functional hearing and depends upon visual rather than auditory communication. “Visual means of communication” include Sign language, lipreading, speech-reading, and reading and writing. “Auditory means of communication” include voice, hearing, and hearing aids and devices.

The CAD-ASC also accepts the definition developed by Gallaudet University in the United States: “Anyone who cannot understand speech (with or without hearing aids or other devices) using sound alone (i.e. no visual cues such as lipreading) is deaf.”

We emphasize that all of the above are strictly the medical/audiological definitions. The sociological/cultural definitions are explicated in the CAD-ASC Position Papers on terminology and on Deaf culture versus medicalization.

A commonly-used definition of deafness is the inability to “fully acquire spoken linguistic skills through [the] auditory channel, aided or unaided” (J. Woodward, “Implications for socio-linguistics research among the Deaf”, Sign Language Studies, 1972). The CAD-ASC rejects this definition because it excludes all post-lingually deafened persons.

We likewise reject the definition, once common in government programs, that a person is deaf or hard of hearing based on his/her ability to hear another person with whom he/she is familiar, in a quiet setting. Our lives are not lived in quiet settings, and persons already familiar to us are not the only persons we must deal with in our everyday lives. There is no legitimacy in a definition that measures our deafness by our ability to hear Mommy speaking quietly in the family kitchen!

Any realistic definition of deafness must give consideration to environmental noises. In a quiet room with one or two other persons present, many hard of hearing persons can function quite well with a hearing-aid. When any kind of noise such as traffic, air-conditioning, or numerous other people enter the situation, however, the hard of hearing person who does not have Sign language can in effect become deaf. This example demonstrates that hearing loss per se cannot be used as the sole factor or as a “stand-alone” factor in defining deafness.

Approved: 3 JULY 2015

The Canadian Association of the Deaf-Association des Sourds du Canada
606 – 251 Bank Street
Ottawa, Ontario K2P 1X3
(613) 565-2882