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Hard of Hearing, Deaf, ASL, and 50+ Other Terms You Should Know

July 11, 2024
Soundly Staff
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Key Takeaways:

  • Hearing loss affects millions of Americans; however, some common words or phrases related to hearing loss are misunderstood.
  • The Deaf community uses sign language as their primary means of communication.
  • The term 'deaf' can be confusing, as hearing loss can be present at vary degrees: from mild to profound.
  • Hearing loss can come from different parts of the ear, with the most common type from the inner ear (called sensorineural hearing loss).

Hearing loss is the 3rd most common chronic physical condition in the U.S., but it receives a shockingly low level of attention in media and culture. As a result, terminology on the topic isn't widely known.

We worked with cochlear implant wearer, Juliet England, to compile a list of important and often misunderstood, deaf and hard of hearing related terms.

We've broken this list of terms into five categories to simplify things. Jump straight to the category you are interested in or start scrolling for the full guide.

  • Deaf vs. deaf and other community-related terms
  • Out of date terms to avoid
  • Terms that describe the various types of hearing loss
  • Audiograms, hearing aid styles, and other terms you might hear if you are seeking treatment
  • Inner-ear, ossicles, and other hearing anatomy terms you might hear

Let’s start with some important terms that describe the community

The way we talk about groups and their identities matters, but it can also be confusing. Here are a few terms to know:

Deaf vs. deaf

The word 'deaf' describes someone with a significant hearing difficulty.

Those who are Deaf with a capital D identify with a shared culture, and sign language is usually their first language. There is a proud cultural association with deafness.

This YouTube video from Deaf creator Rogan Shannon offers some helpful context.

There are four levels of deafness and hearing loss as described by professionals.

  • Mild deafness or mild hearing loss: The person begins hearing sound at 25-29 decibels (dB). They may find it difficult to follow speech at a distance or in background noise.
  • Moderate deafness or moderate hearing impairment: Someone with moderate deafness can detect sounds between 40 and 69 dB. Following a conversation without lip reading, ASL, or a hearing aid becomes difficult.
  • Severe deafness or severe hearing loss: Someone with severe deafness can hear at around 70 to 89 dB. Even with a hearing aid, a severely deaf person uses lip-read, sign language, and captions.
  • Profound deafness: Anybody who cannot hear a sound below 90dB has profound deafness. Someone in this category may have minimal residual hearing and will likely not hear speech, even with hearing aids.


This term describes someone who loses their hearing, often suddenly, sometimes after an injury or illness.

Hard of Hearing (HOH)

Hard of hearing individuals can have a range of hearing loss from mild to severe; some hearing capability is still present in these people.

Some out-of-date terms to avoid.

A number of terms are now considered out of date, and even offensive to some deaf and hard of hearing people. These include:

  • Deaf and dumb/deaf mute
  • Hearing impaired – often, this is a very generalized term that takes no account of different types of deafness
  • Some Deaf people don’t like ‘hearing loss’ as they don’t feel they have ‘lost’ anything

Not all hearing loss is the same. Here are some terms that describe different types of loss.

Not all hearing loss is experienced in the same way. These are some of the most common terms you might hear when someone is describing their hearing loss:

Sensorineural Hearing Loss

Caused by damage to the sensitive hair cells in the inner ear or the auditory nerve, it occurs naturally with age or due to injury.

Auditory Processing Disorder (APD)

Auditory processing disorder makes it hard to understand sounds, including spoken words, especially in noisy places or similar sounding words. Auditory processing disorder can become especially difficult with fast speakers or strong accents. You can read more about APD here.

Conductive Hearing Loss

Conductive hearing loss occurs when sound can’t move through the outer or middle ears due to a blockage – so it can’t reach the inner ear. It may be caused by something as simple as earwax.

Age-Related Hearing Loss

Age-related hearing loss is widespread and mainly due to the wear and tear of tiny inner-ear hair cells. Family history and over-exposure to loud noise can increase hearing loss.


Tinnitus causes people to hear persistent ringing or buzzing noises. It can be linked to hearing loss, and various treatments and therapies may help.

Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is a general term to describe reduced ability to hear, and the term encompasses a wide range of degrees of loss. As noted above, the term hearing loss can be offensive to members of the Deaf community who do not feel they have lost anything.

This video from our audiology lead, Amy Sarow, explains the 3 broad types of hearing loss. 👇

Let’s move on to some terms you might hear while getting hearing treatment.

If you choose to treat your hearing loss, you will hear a wide range of terms that describe hearing aids and audiological care. These are some of the most common:


An audiologist is a hearing professional who manages someone's hearing loss and its solutions. Audiologists are trained to treat all levels of hearing loss, tinnitus, and balance issues.

There are Seven Common Hearing Aid Styles

  • Invisible in the canal hearing aid (IIC) - This tiny style sits inside your ear canal with only a pull tab visible to remove the device. Typically does not allow rechargeability or Bluetooth streaming.
  • Completely in canal hearing aid (CIC) - The top of the hearing aid is visible to those looking from the side, but the device is very discreet. Some CIC hearing aids can support Bluetooth and rechargeable batteries.
  • In the canal hearing aid (ITC) - Comfortable but visible. More easily accessed to change the volume or mode.
  • Half shell hearing aid - This style is even more accessible for manual adjustments and allows for more power and, in some cases, rechargeability and Bluetooth.
  • Full shell hearing aid - This style gives maximum power and control for more severe hearing loss or dexterity issues.
  • Behind the ear and Receiver-In-Canal Hearing Aids (BTE or RIC) - By far the most common style. Hearing aids that site behind the ear can be very discreet if you have hair to cover the device behind your ear. They often come with Bluetooth connection, rechargeable batteries, and other emerging technology like artificial intelligence.
  • Cochlear implant - Treat severe or profound deafness and are surgically fitted under general anesthetic. An implant comprises a processor (worn externally), including a microphone, a transmitter coil, and the implant under the skull. Cochlear implants work by electrically stimulating the auditory nerve.

Tinnitus Therapy

TRT is an individualized program that is usually administered by an audiologist or at a tinnitus treatment center. It can include mindfulness, updates to diet, and support groups. There are also several less alternative therapies, including herbal, vitamin, and mineral supplements, homeopathy, and acupuncture.

Tinnitus Masking

Tinnitus maskers use white-noise to introduce low-level sound into the environment and mask or cover up the disturbance of the ringing sounds. They can incorporate natural sounds like a fan or the ocean or artificially created sounds like a white noise machine or sleep headphones. You can see some of my favorite tinnitus masking devices here.


An audiogram plots the results of your hearing test. Results are plotted to show your hearing thresholds across various frequencies. If you do need a hearing aid, the audiogram can be used to program amplifcation to your specific hearing loss. If you haven’t ever taken a hearing test you can start with a free online test here.

Hearing Test

A hearing test can be done (at a basic level) online or with a specialist provider. A hearing test measures the quietest sounds that can be heard and plots them on the audiogram. Some hearing tests also measure your ability to hear speech in noise and can help detect auditory processing disorder.  

Some great information on hearing tests and audiograms can be found in the simple video below. 👇

Hearing Dog

Hearing dogs give an outward signal of deafness, and provide deaf people with companionship. They also alert their owner to doorbells and alarm clocks and to danger such as when the fire alarm sounds.

Hearing Loop

Loop, T-coil, or telecoil systems reduce or eliminate background noise and they’re fitted to many public buildings. A cable loops around a room and receives a signal direct from the sound source. Many hearing aids have a special ‘T’ setting to pick up this signal.

Visual Alarm Signal

A wide range of products incorporate flashing lights to alert a deaf person of a doorbell, ringing telephone, alarm clock or smoke alarm.

Here are a few important terms about accessible communication.

Communication expands far beyond the spoken word. These are some of the terms that describe alternate forms:  

American Sign Language (ASL)

The visual language of deaf communities across the US and most of English-speaking Canada. A complete language that is expressed via facial expression plus hand movements.

British Sign Language (BSL)

Used across the UK, although with regional ‘dialects’, this is the visual or sign language of Britain’s deaf community. It is not related to any of the UK’s spoken languages, and estimates suggest that on any day up to 250,000 use it. BSL is the first language of up to 70,000 people. It has its own grammatical structure and syntax.


Also called speechreading, this is a way of understanding speech from studying a speaker’s lip, face and tongue movements. It’s often combined with knowledge of context, language, and residual hearing. It’s possible to improve this skill via tutored classes.


Lipspeakers reproduce clearly the shapes of the words and the natural rhythm and stress the speaker uses. They also use facial expressions, gesture and, if needed, fingerspelling.


Fingerspelling is a way of spelling out words using hand movements. It’s used to express the names of people and places, for example – i.e. words for which there is no sign.


Subtitles reproduce the spoken words of a film or TV show in text across the bottom of the screen. Not to be confused with captioning of live events such as plays. Captions also describe background sounds and music.


Sign language is interpreted – not translated. A hearing interpreter with a high level of sign language relays spoken words to a deaf person as sign language, or a deaf person’s sign language to someone who can hear as spoken words, in a wide range of settings.

Computer-assisted notetaking

Also called electronic notetaking, this is used in education, training, and healthcare. Computer-assisted notetaking can be conducted by a software program or an operator. This information is projected on a screen or computer, and also provides a written record of a session.

If you are interested in learning sign language, you might start with the excellent video below. Note that this video teaches ASL. There are similar BSL videos, along with many others, available online.

Finally, let’s talk about the ear itself. These are a few important hearing anatomy terms.

We can’t forget about our ears. They are complicated and intricate organs with many components we rarely consider. Here are some of the most common terms to describe the anatomy of the ear:

The outer ear

Comprises the pinna (visible part of the ear), the ear canal, and drum and mainly consists of bone and cartilage.

The middle ear

Lies behind the drum, a cavity linked to the nose via the Eustachian tube.

Inside the middle ear are three tiny, connected bones, called the ossicles and the smallest human bones. These respond to sound and form part of the hearing pathway.

The inner ear

is where the cochlea lies. This shell-shaped hearing organ housed within the skull is fingernail-sized, and has thousands of hair cells that send signals to the brain when stimulated, allowing you to hear.

We created the animation below to show how the ear works. 👇

We hope you’ve learned something from this glossary of terms. If you would like to suggest new terms for this guide send us a note at [email protected].

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