Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Deaf and not so dumb

with 4 comments

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Unbelievably, the phrase ‘deaf and dumb’ still appears in newspapers and magazines, and is still used by broadcasters. I blush for the people who write and say such stuff.   The phrase can be hugely insulting, suggesting stupidity and an inability to communicate. The terms ‘stone deaf’ and ‘deaf mute’ should also be avoided.

Always use ‘deaf’ or ‘hearing impaired’. ‘Hearing impaired’ can be a good bet if you are talking about a number of people, as levels of hearing can vary widely from person to person.

If a deaf or hearing impaired person does not speak, be aware that they may be a sign language user (not ‘deaf and dumb’, or a ‘deaf mute’).

The Deaf Community

As a slight complication, the word ‘deaf’ should sometimes take an upper-case ‘D’. You should write ‘Deaf’ when referring to the Deaf Community, or members of the Deaf Community. Members of the Deaf Community in the UK usually have British Sign Language (BSL) as their first language, or have adopted it as their main language. They share a culture and heritage, and BSL is at the heart of their community. In comparison, deaf people (with a lower-case ‘d’) live more in the ‘hearing world’. Don’t be afraid to ask respectfully how someone would prefer to be described (if it’s necessary to refer to their deafness at all).


Don’t automatically assume that people who are deaf, hearing impaired or members of the Deaf Community can be described as ‘disabled’. People who are deaf or hearing impaired can deeply resent this description. I shall never forget the deaf teacher who demanded of her (hearing) sign language pupils: ‘Would you describe me as disabled?’. Be aware that this attitude may be shared by others with physical conditions which are commonly described as a ‘disability’.

This same woman was deeply angry about a lot of newspaper coverage of deaf or hearing impaired people. One story in particular which described the ‘miraculous’ way in which a deaf woman was able to care for her new baby struck her as being particularly ludicrous and patronising (she was herself a mother).

British Sign Language

As a side issue, do bear in mind that British Sign Language is not, as many people seem to think, a form of pidgin English. It is an independent language, as sophisticated as spoken English and with its own grammatical rules. NEVER refer to British Sign Language as ‘deaf and dumb language’.

Remember the golden rule: if in doubt about how to describe someone, ask them.

Am I allowed to say that? A no-nonsense guide to political correctness


4 Responses

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  1. This was a very interesting article. I am not sure I am always politically correct even though I have a daughter who is deaf…


    03/01/2010 at 5:02 am

  2. Hi, there — thanks for dropping by and taking the time to comment. Your blog is wonderful and inspirational; I’m so glad your comment here enabled me to find it. All good wishes to you.


    03/01/2010 at 9:22 am

  3. Never even heard that, but I stand enlightened. My dad was deaf in one ear all my life. We never mentioned it (too scared?) and he never explained if it was a war injury or childhood disease; he called himself “deaf in one ear.”

    Michael Farrell

    12/01/2010 at 3:48 pm

    • Thanks, Michael — I think we sometimes use these well-worn phrases without thinking. They trip off the tongue so easily.


      12/01/2010 at 3:52 pm

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