SoundSpace Online

Hearing Technologies and Identity

Deaf people have chosen to identify themselves as ‘Deaf’ rather than ‘deaf’, seeing their deafness as part of their identity rather than simply in terms of their level of hearing or deafness. This was a rejection of a medical model of deafness as a condition in need of cure, and an endorsement of membership of a particular group, a social-cultural model. However, societal changes and the rapid development of hearing and communication technologies has made the situation not as clear cut as it was.

The term ‘Deaf’ does not seem to be used as frequently now, and is used more selectively, not because it has been rejected but because our notion of ‘identity’ is becoming more complex. We recognise that it is not one fixed property but that people have any number of identities, e.g. parent, artist, runner, teacher, which are fluid and evolving. The difficulty in definition arises over groups such as children where identity is developing, or those whose hearing loss is changing or people who lose their hearing later in life who are unlikely to use sign language. 

Additionally, the advent of many communication and hearing technologies has changed what it means to be deaf. Following the advent of newborn hearing screening, and the early fitting of digital aids or cochlear implants, more children are using spoken language and fewer sign language. For example, in England, the government data for 2014 shows that only 1.8% of children are using British Sign Language, 90% are using spoken language and the rest using Signed Supported English (CRIDE data available from NDCS website or BATOD website). The introduction of effective hearing technology has changed the opportunities for learning spoken language, and deaf young people are more flexible about their communication requirements (The Ear Foundation report for Signature, 2015). For example, young people with cochlear implants often describe themselves as “deaf and hearing – deaf but can hear with my implant.” This was not previously possible.

Other technologies, such as video relay services, use of texting, emailing, Skype and Face time alter the communication opportunities for deaf people. The use of social media has become increasingly important to those with hearing loss of any level, enabling communication, and enabling communication across long distances for those who consider themselves to be part of the Deaf community – they no longer need to meet physically to communicate by sign language.