3 Ways to Define Deafness differently – which is the best?

How society defines deafness is important because the description defines a deaf person’s social identity and impacts their ability to access the world around them. There are different viewpoints to explain ‘deafness’ – one view defines a person by their (in)ability to hear, the other by a person’s inability to access the world around them. We have added another model that focuses on how some deaf people prefer to communicate. By explaining the different perspectives on deafness we hope to encourage readers to define deafness differently.

1. The medical model of deafness:

The medical model is the most prevalent view and focuses on (the lack of) ability to hear. It is seen as an impairment that affects a person’s ability to function in society. The medical model does not distinguish between the person and what is ‘wrong’ with them.

Healthcare industries dedicated to correcting deafness have grown significantly. In 2018, the hearing aid market was valued at $5.1 billion. Other services include audiology, speech therapy, educational psychology, teachers of the deaf, cochlear implant departments and so on.

Hearing Loss ‘categories’:

The medical model of hearing loss and deafness focuses on correcting the difficulty in speech recognition. Audiology assessments put hearing loss/deafness into four categories:

  • Mild: Loss of hearing resulting in difficulty picking up softer speech sounds such as f,s and th.
  • Moderate: Loss of hearing which results in losing additional speech sounds and shapes (e.g. m,b,p), particularly in noisy places.
  • Severe: Loss of hearing results in losing all speech sounds and some louder sounds e.g. a dog barking.
  • Profound: No hearing other than being aware of exceptionally loud noises such as an aeroplane taking off or roadworks drill.

‘Fixing’ people:

The major problem with the medical model is that everything is focused on the individual. By ‘fixing’ the hearing loss, the individual can manage in the outside world. Unfortunately, the medical model fails to take into account the impact of hearing loss and deafness in the real world. There are a number of barriers that prevent people with any level of hearing loss from achieving their potential and accessing the world around them.

The medical model also fails to explain that equipment such as hearing aids and cochlear implants only enable access to sound, not language. If aids enabled access to language, individuals would not need the additional support of speech therapy, lip-reading classes or British Sign Language.

Whilst deafness itself may not be life-threatening, most people think of deafness as an impairment to be ‘fixed’. This view can have a detrimental effect on a person’s mental and physical well being.

2. The social model:

The social model of deafness accepts that there are differences in hearing ability and the barriers preventing access to the world, need to be removed. Adjusting services to accommodate these differences removes barriers and enable access. For example, a deaf person going to the cinema would need subtitles to access the dialogue in a film.

The social model acknowledges an individual’s difference, not as a disability or something that is wrong with an individual but as a difference that needs to be accommodated. The model acknowledges factors such as unconscious bias can lead to negative attitudes and discrimination.

Disability arises when services have not been adequately adjusted to accommodate individual differences. e.g. expecting everyone to use steps – providing a ramp for wheelchair users would be a reasonable adjustment

The social model accepts that individuals are different, including the way they communicate or how they behave and focuses on addressing the barriers that prevent individuals from being part of the community. This is a more holistic approach and acknowledges that individuals are part of the wider community.

Reasonable adjustments:

Unfortunately, many services simply do not see accessibility as their responsibility. Some services take the view that they are ‘accessible’ in the sense that anyone can use their services. These services fail to understand that they need to make reasonable adjustments, so their service can be accessed and used as intended.

Failing to make reasonable adjustments applies to all areas of life including sport, leisure, council services, health services and businesses open to the public e.g. cinemas.

The social model also applies to employment. Job seekers and employees need to participate in social activities at work. Activities will include meetings, phone calls, training sessions and social events. Unfortunately, there are common misconceptions about communication that can impact a person’s involvement in the social aspects of working. However, someone with hearing loss or deafness can participate in these activities with the right adjustments, (often at little or no cost).

3. A ‘cultural’ model?

Finally, there is the cultural model of deafness. This model usually refers to individuals who are profoundly deaf and use British Sign language (BSL) for communication.

People who identify as Deaf with a big ‘D’ see themselves as part of a linguistic minority who have a rich linguistic culture. Most ‘Deaf’ community members use have used BSL from birth to adulthood and use sign language as their first and only method of communication. They usually only socialise or go to activities that involve other people from the Deaf community, as there is a common cultural understanding.

Deaf Schools:

People who are ‘Deaf’ are also more likely to have gone to a school for the Deaf. However, the majority of specialist deaf schools have now closed down. Most deaf children are now educated in mainstream schools. Unfortunately, this can create an isolating experience.

At Access Ambassadors, we focus on the social model of deafness. We focus on helping organisations remove the barriers that prevent individuals from accessing services and employment.


Deaf and hard of hearing people do not like to be defined by a label. Hearing ability is only one part of an individual’s sensory input. Nonetheless, there are a variety of terms that mainstream services use to describe deaf or hard of hearing individuals. The term you use when talking to someone will depend on how the individual views their deafness or hearing loss. Some Deaf people view deafness as a social identity, particularly sign language users. It is important to know the range of terms that are currently in use:

  • Hearing-impaired: This term refers to a disability category that describes individuals who have lost some of their hearing.
  • Hard of hearing: This term is similar to hearing impaired. It describes people with some level of hearing loss.
  • Deafened: This term refers to individuals who were hearing but have lost the function of hearing. For example, soldiers who lose their hearing, are described as deafened.
  • d/Deaf: This term usually refers to individuals who have severe or profound hearing loss.

Communication support:

Hearing loss/deafness can happen at any point in a person’s life. There are a range of communication aids:

  • Speech-to-text

There are a number of ‘speech to text’ software options, some of which, are free. The software can be used on a smartphone, tablet or PC. Here is a list of options currently available. Of course, technology moves so fast that more and more apps come online and improve accessibility – Google Live captioning is a great example of this:

Google captioning
  • Sign Language interpreter:

Sign Language Interpreters are professionals who facilitate communication between deaf and hearing people. Interpreters have extensive knowledge of cultural differences in English and British Sign Language. This enables interpreters to translate from one language to another to achieve linguistic equivalence. There is a national register of qualified interpreters that list over 1,000 interpreters working across the UK.

  • Hearing loop:

People who wear hearing aids will use a hearing loop system. The loop picks up sounds from the room and then emits a signal that a hearing aid picks up. A loop cuts out most background noise making the sound clearer.

  • Subtitles

Subtitles (or captions) are the text form of dialogue or commentary. They are, usually at the bottom of the screen in films, tv programmes or as stage text at theatre productions.


This page gives a brief but detailed overview of the information that organisations need to be aware of when making services accessible. Deafness and hearing loss are complex issues that affect each person differently. In other words, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. This is something many organisations are slowly coming to realise as their customer base shrinks. Customers want to know you have considered their needs, including those who may have lost their hearing.