There are various terms for describing people with varying degrees or kinds of deafness. The most important of these terms are defined below.
If you are not sure which term to use, it is advisable to check with the person you are talking with or about to determine which term they prefer to use.
The two main international peak organisations - the World Federation of the Deaf and the International Federation of the Hard of Hearing - have recommended that the terms "Deaf" and "Hard of Hearing" be adopted (1995), and Deaf Australia follows this recommendation. However many Australian people and organisations continue to use the term "hearing impaired" in preference to "hard of hearing".
Using the wrong word can easily offend. Culturally Deaf people do not like the term "hearing impaired", perceiving it as negative and clinical. Hard of hearing people do not like being identified by the terms "Deaf" or "deaf", so it is essential to check terminology with your subjects. Where a large mixed group of people is being referred to, it is appropriate to use more than one term, e.g., "Television subtitles are enjoyed by Deaf and hard of hearing people throughout Australia."
back to top
Information provided by Deaf Australia Inc. Reproduced with permission.
Disclaimer: The information contained on this website is not intended as a substitute for independent professional advice.
Last Updated: 13-May-2022 7:47 AM (AEST)
Disability Fact Sheet 3 (FS3)
Links updated, May 2021
In This Publication:
Caroline is six years old, with bright brown eyes and, at the moment, no front teeth, like so many other first graders. She also wears a hearing aid in each ear—and has done so since she was three, when she was diagnosed with a moderate hearing loss.
For Caroline’s parents, there were many clues along the way. Caroline often didn’t respond to her name if her back was turned. She didn’t startle at noises that made other people jump. She liked the TV on loud. But it was the preschool she started attending when she was three that first put the clues together and suggested to Caroline’s parents that they have her hearing checked. The most significant clue to the preschool was Caroline’s unclear speech, especially the lack of consonants like “d” and “t” at the end of words.
So Caroline’s parents took her to an audiologist, who collected a full medical history, examined the little girl’s ears inside and out, ran a battery of hearing tests and other assessments, and eventually diagnosed that Caroline’s inner ear (the cochlea) was damaged. The audiologist said she had sensorineural hearing loss.
Caroline was immediately fitted with hearing aids. She also began receiving special education and related services through the public school system. Now in the first grade, she regularly gets speech therapy and other services, and her speech has improved dramatically. So has her vocabulary and her attentiveness. She sits in the front row in class, an accommodation that helps her hear the teacher clearly. She’s back on track, soaking up new information like a sponge, and eager for more.
Back to top
About Hearing Loss in Children
Hearing is one of our five senses. Hearing gives us access to sounds in the world around us—people’s voices, their words, a car horn blown in warning or as hello!
When a child has a hearing loss, it is cause for immediate attention. That’s because language and communication skills develop most rapidly in childhood, especially before the age of 3. When hearing loss goes undetected, children are delayed in developing these skills (March of Dimes, 2010).
Recognizing the importance of early detection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) recommends that every newborn be screened for hearing loss as early as possible, usually before they leave the hospital. Catching a hearing loss early means that treatment can start early as well and “help the child develop communication and language skills that will last a lifetime” (CDC, 2013).
Back to top
Types of Hearing Loss
Before we describe the types of hearing loss a person may have, it’s useful to know that sound is measured by:
Hearing loss is generally described as slight, mild, moderate, severe, or profound, depending upon how well a person can hear the intensities or frequencies most strongly associated with speech. Impairments in hearing can occur in either or both areas, and may exist in only one ear or in both ears. Generally, only children whose hearing loss is greater than 90 decibels (dB) are considered deaf.
There are four types of hearing loss, as follows (eHealthMD, 2013):
Conductive hearing losses are caused by diseases or obstructions in the outer or middle ear (the pathways for sound to reach the inner ear). Conductive hearing losses usually affect all frequencies of hearing evenly and do not result in severe losses. A person with a conductive hearing loss usually is able to use a hearing aid well or can be helped medically or surgically.
Sensorineural hearing losses result from damage to the delicate sensory hair cells of the inner ear or the nerves that supply it. These hearing losses can range from mild to profound. They often affect the person’s ability to hear certain frequencies more than others. Thus, even with amplification to increase the sound level, a person with a sensorineural hearing loss may perceive distorted sounds, sometimes making the successful use of a hearing aid impossible.
A mixed hearing loss refers to a combination of conductive and sensorineural loss and means that a problem occurs in both the outer or middle and the inner ear.
A central hearing loss results from damage or impairment to the nerves or nuclei of the central nervous system, either in the pathways to the brain or in the brain itself.
Back to top
How Common is Hearing Loss?
Each year in the United States, more than 12,000 babies are born with a hearing loss; often, the cause is unknown (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010). Profound deafness occurs in 4-11 per 10,000 children; in at least 50% of these cases, the cause is genetic (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, n.d.). Through the Universal Newborn Hearing Screening program, many states now mandate that all newborns be screened for hearing loss within hours of birth (National Center for Hearing Assessment & Management, n.d.).
Back to top
Signs of a Hearing Loss or Deafness
Just as with Caroline, our first grader, there will be signs that a child may not be hearing normally. Parents may notice that their child:
Back to top
Causes of Hearing Loss and Deafness
Hearing loss and deafness can be either:
The most common cause of acquired hearing loss is exposure to noise (Merck Manual’s Online Medical Library, 2012). Other causes can include:
Congenital causes of hearing loss and deafness include:
A child’s hearing loss or deafness may also be a characteristic of another disability such as Down syndrome, Usher syndrome, Treacher Collins syndrome, Crouzon syndrome, and Alport syndrome (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, n.d.).
In all cases, early detection and treatment are very important to the child’s development.
Back to top
Is There Help Available?
Yes, there’s a lot of help available, beginning with the free evaluation of the child. The nation’s special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), requires that all children suspected of having a disability be evaluated without cost to their parents to determine if they do have a disability and, because of the disability, need special services under IDEA. Those special services are:
To access early intervention: To identify the EI program in your neighborhood, visit the Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center, at: https://ectacenter.org/contact/ptccoord.asp
To access special education and related services: We recommend that you get in touch with your local public school system. Calling the elementary school in your neighborhood is an excellent place to start. The school should be able to tell you the next steps to having your child evaluated free of charge and, if found eligible, he or she can begin receiving services specially designed to address your child’s needs.
There are also special services available to low-income children through the Early Periodic Screening, Diagnosis, and Treatment (EPSDT) program, the child health component of Medicaid. To learn more about the EPSDT program, visit: https://mchb.hrsa.gov/maternal-child-health-initiatives/mchb-programs/early-periodic-screening-diagnosis-and-treatment
Back to top
Definition in IDEA
It’s helpful to know that, while the terms “hearing impairment” and “hearing loss” are often used to describe a wide range of hearing losses, including deafness, IDEA actually defines the two terms separately, as follows:
Hearing impairment is defined by IDEA as “an impairment in hearing, whether permanent or fluctuating, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.”
Deafness is defined as “a hearing impairment that is so severe that the child is impaired in processing linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification.”
Thus, deafness is viewed as a condition that prevents an individual from receiving sound in all or most of its forms. In contrast, a child with a hearing loss can generally respond to auditory stimuli, including speech.
Back to top
Hearing loss or deafness does not affect a person’s intellectual capacity or ability to learn. However, children who are hard of hearing or deaf generally require some form of special education services in order to receive an adequate education. Such services may include:
Children who are hard of hearing will find it much more difficult than children who have normal hearing to learn vocabulary, grammar, word order, idiomatic expressions, and other aspects of verbal communication. For children who are deaf or have severe hearing losses, early, consistent, and conscious use of visible communication modes (such as sign language, fingerspelling, and Cued Speech) and/or amplification and aural/oral training can help reduce this language delay.
By age four or five, most children who are deaf are enrolled in school on a full-day basis and do special work on communication and language development. Parents work with school personnel to develop an individualized education program (IEP) that details the child’s special needs and the services and supports that will be provided to meet those needs. IDEA requires that the IEP team address the communication needs of a child who is deaf or hard of hearing.
Read more about communication needs as one of IDEA’s “special factors”
Checklist for IEP teams
It is important for teachers and audiologists to work together to teach the child to use his or her residual hearing to the maximum extent possible, even if the preferred means of communication is manual. Since the great majority of deaf children (over 90%) are born to hearing parents, programs should provide instruction for parents on implications of deafness within the family.
People with hearing loss use oral or manual means of communication or a combination of the two. Oral communication includes speech, lip reading, and the use of residual hearing. Manual communication involves signs and fingerspelling. Total Communication, as a method of instruction, is a combination of the oral method plus signing and fingerspelling.
Back to top
Using the Relay Service
Individuals with hearing loss, including those who are deaf, now have many helpful devices available to them. Text telephones (known as TTs, TTYs, or TDDs) enable persons to type phone messages over the telephone network.
The Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS) makes it possible for TT users to communicate with virtually anyone (and vice versa) via telephone through a communications assistant. Dial 711 to access all telecommunications relay services anywhere in the United States. The relay service is free.
Back to top
In alphabetical order, here’s a starter list of organizations providing info and guidance on deafness and hearing loss. Explore the sites below and the wealth of material they offer on types of hearing loss, newborn and early childhood screening, the EHDI program for early detection of hearing loss, guidance for parents, suggestions for educators working with children who are deaf or hard of hearing, and much more.
Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing | www.agbell.org
American Academy of Audiology | https://www.audiology.org/consumers-0
American Hearing Research Foundation | www.american-hearing.org
American Society for Deaf Children |1.800.942.2732 | www.deafchildren.org/
ASHA | American Speech-Language-Hearing Association | 1.800.638.8255 | www.asha.org/public/hearing/
Beginnings | For parents of children who are deaf or hard of hearing | https://ncbegin.org/
Better Hearing | https://www.betterhearing.org
CDC | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention | 1.800.CDC.INFO
Deaf Culture Online | http://www.deaf-culture-online.com/index.html
Hands and Voices | https://handsandvoices.org/
Hearing Loss Association of America | https://www.hearingloss.org/
Info to Go | Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center | 202.651.5051
Medline Plus | https://medlineplus.gov/hearingdisordersanddeafness.html
National Association of the Deaf | https://www.nad.org/
National Center for Hearing Assessment & Management | 435.797.3584 |
NIDCD | National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders | 1.800.241.1044
Helpful Readings on Specific Subjects
Your Baby’s Hearing and Communicative Development Checklist |
To Parents of Deaf Children |
Assistive Technology for Hearing
Communications Considerations A-Z |
Communication Plan for a Child Who is Deaf or Hard of Hearing
Cochlear Implants | https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/cochlear-implants
Resources for People Who Can’t Afford Hearing Aids and Cochlear Implants
Tips for Teachers | https://www.verywellhealth.com/deaf-and-hard-of-hearing-in-classroom-1049413
Back to top
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (n.d.). Causes of hearing loss. Available online at: www.asha.org/public/hearing/disorders/causes.htm
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (n.d.). The prevalence and incidence of hearing loss in children. Available online at: http://www.asha.org/public/hearing/disorders/children.htm
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). Facts. Available online at:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Hearing loss in children. Available online at: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/hearingloss/about.html
eHealthMD. (2013). Different types of hearing loss. Available online at:
Merck Manual’s Online Medical Library. (2012). Hearing loss. Available online at:
March of Dimes. (2010). Hearing impairment. Available online at:
Michigan Department of Community Health. (2004). A diagram of the ear. Available online at: www.michigan.gov/documents/mdch/DCH0519A_201145_7.pdf
National Center for Hearing Assessment & Management. (n.d.). Status of early hearing detection and intervention in the United States. Available online at: www.infanthearing.org/status/index.html
Back to top