How to Refer to Deaf People

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How to refer to deaf people: a cross analysis between English and Italian vocabulary

Words by Chiara Pennetta, founder of the.undeaf
Download Italian version HERE

the.undeaf is an Instagram page that puts deafness and hearing loss at the center of daily life, encouraging us to rethink the way we perceive and approach these realities. With her contribution, Chiara Pennetta helps Accento look at Italian culture through a new lens.

When it comes to deafness and deaf people, it’s easy for non-experts to get lost in the variety of words and expressions one can use. Which are correct, which aren’t? Which are respectful and which are considered offensive?

In this article we’re going to try and give you a little glossary, with a bilingual twist: we’ll compare English and Italian vocabulary to compare these languages, but also the cultures and their representation of deafness.

What we shouldn’t say:

Deaf-mute (Eng.); sordomuto (Ita.): This label is technically inaccurate, since deaf people have functioning vocal chords, they are not mute. Many deaf people don’t use their voice to communicate because to successfully learn how to speak, you generally need to be able to hear your own voice. In Italy, the term “sordomuto” has been officially erased from all laws and documents with the Law 20 february 2006, n. 95, and replaced with the term “sordo” (“deaf”). This label is now considered offensive and incorrect in both the Italian and English language, but in Italy it isn’t uncommon to meet people still using it, usually older or rather ignorant people.


Deaf and dumb (Eng.); sordomuto (Ita.): these words literally translate into Italian as “sordo e stupido” (“deaf and stupid”). The term, and the idea that deaf people are also ignorant and stupid, comes from Ancient and Medieval times, when deaf people were considered to be incapable of learning and understanding anything. It was believed that those who couldn’t speak couldn’t also develop cognitive abilities. This term is highly offensive, and even if deaf people proved they can learn, communicate and largely contribute to society, there still is a widespread prejudice about their cognitive abilities and many people don’t seem to understand that the problem (if there is) lies with the inaccessibility of education and information.


Hearing impaired (Eng.); minorato dell’udito, audioleso, audioprivo (Ita.): in English, this label was long considered more politically correct and was largely used; it’s still common to find it written somewhere. Lately, the term has come to sound impolite because its focus is on what people can’t do. It establishes the standard as “hearing” and anything else as broken, damaged, incomplete. We can say the same about the three Italian words that translate it.


Non-hearing” (Eng.); Non udente (Ita.): this Italian expression has been used (and is still being used) as a synonym for the word “deaf” and was long considered more politically correct than “sordo” (“deaf”). However, the Italian deaf community despises it because it focuses on a negative, on what people aren’t. Saying “sordo”, on the contrary, means using a positive language that identifies and respects people for what they are.


Affected by/suffers from (Eng.); affetto da/soffre di (Ita.): deafness isn’t an illness, but a condition. We shouldn’t talk about it as if it were; also, assuming that people suffer because of their deafness can be impolite and reinforces the concept that being deaf is an unpleasant negative thing.

What we can say instead:

Deaf (Eng.); sordo (Ita.): the plain and simple word is also the more correct and preferred by the deaf community. Deafness is no longer considered something to hide or to be ashamed of (at least it shouldn’t be) and to declare ourselves as “deaf” also means to reclaim  our identity as a whole, existing independently and not in relation to or opposed to hearing people.


Deaf vs deaf (Eng.); Sordo vs sordo (Ita.): lowercase d/s refer to a person that is deaf or hard of hearing in general. Capitalized D/S is sometimes used by people that identify with deaf culture, are part of the deaf community and usually have sign language as their first language.


Deafhood (Eng.): the term comes from Paddy Ladd’s book “Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood” (2003). Its definition is: “a process by which Deaf individuals come to actualize their Deaf identity, positing that these individuals construct that identity to their heightened forms by various factors such as nation, era, and class.” Deafhood defines being deaf as a positive thing, and it could be translated into Italian as “lo stato dell’essere sordo”, “identità sorda”.


Hard of Hearing (Eng.); ipoacusico/ipoudente (Ita.): “hard of hearing” (HoH) literally translates into Italian as “duro d’orecchi”, but this phrase is not very common in Italy, at least not to identify a deaf person. HoH and its Italian equivalent “ipoacusico” often are used in referring to people that have a mild/medium hearing loss and/or that are deaf but use hearing devices such as hearing aids or cochlear implants that help them recover their hearing.


Everyone is free to chose how to identify and define themselves. We should respect every choice without judgement. At the same time, we have to remember that words are never “just words”. They help spread awareness, respecting people, and acknowledging their identities… Handle them with care!


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