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What Is Hearing Impairment?

By WebMD Connect to Care Staff
Learn more about the various elements that influence the definition and use of the term "hearing impairment".

You’ve heard the term “hearing impairment,” but what exactly does it mean? The answer is tricky because hearing impairment is a technical definition in some contexts, but in others, calling someone “hearing-impaired” is considered outdated and should be avoided. Here, we explore the definition and characteristics of hearing impairment and when it’s inappropriate to use the term “hearing impaired". 

What Does Hearing Impairment Mean?

The definition of the term "hearing impairment" depends on the context in which it is being used.

For instance, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) uses “hearing impairment” as a technical term to classify hearing loss in children.

The Act defines hearing impairment as any decrease in hearing, whether fluctuating or permanent, that interferes with a child’s ability to perform in an educational setting. The term excludes deafness, which the Act defines as a hearing loss so severe that it impairs the processing of language information in an educational context, with or without the support of a hearing amplification.

The term "hearing impairment" can also describe hearing loss in adults. “The everyday meaning of the term ‘hearing impairment’ is that a person cannot hear at a level that is optimal for communication or for the activities of daily life,” Hamid Djalilian, MD, Director of Otology, Neurotology and Skull Base Surgery at the University of California, Irvine, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

The type and degree of a person's hearing loss will often determine the characteristics of their hearing abilities. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, there are three types of hearing loss:

  • Conductive hearing loss is when sound can’t reach the inner ear for a variety of reasons, such as fluid in the ear, a problem with the eardrum, or a problem with the bones that help produce hearing abilities.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss is a type of hearing loss that concerns the inner ear. Common causes of inner ear damage are aging, trauma, and loud noise exposure.
  • Mixed hearing loss is when hearing loss is due to a combination of issues in the outer/middle ear and the inner ear. 

The degrees of hearing loss can be broken down into four general categories, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Mild: Soft sounds are difficult to hear.
  • Moderate: Very little speech is heard when someone is talking at a normal level.
  • Severe: No speech is heard at normal levels and only some loud sounds are heard.
  • Profound: No speech is heard, and only very loud sounds are perceived.

There are also social and cultural elements to consider.

The term “hearing impaired” has fallen into disfavor among many advocates. The National Association of the Deaf (NAD), for example, notes that the term “hearing impaired” has the negative implication that a person is damaged and should be fixed. The NAD states that "hard of hearing" is a more preferable term for those with mild-to-moderate hearing loss.

Since there are a number of elements that could influence how you or someone else with hearing loss would like to be identified, it doesn't hurt to simply ask others how they would like their hearing loss to be named. 

Hearing Loss Can Be Managed and Treated.

The earlier you address the symptoms of hearing loss, the more likely you are to avoid irreversible damage. Get the answers you need to start treatment today.