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What is the difference between Deaf and deaf?

ASL - Deaf - Food for thought

It’s been an exciting time for many to finally start seeing Deaf culture and sign language gaining more traction and understanding in popular culture. The 2020 Nyle DiMarco produced Netflix series Deaf U explored a seldom seen look at a select group of young people at Gallaudet University reveling in the college experience. 2020 saw mixed-media artist and activist Christine Sun Kim get some visibility for signing the National Anthem followed this year by performer and rapper WaWa Warren Snipe doing the same. With the Oscar’s just last weekend Darius Marder’s film “The Sound of Metal” also furthered to push Deaf representation with its compelling story about a Metal drummer dealing with identity, addiction and hearing loss; supported by an all-star cast of Deaf and signing talent like Lauren Ridloff, Chelsea Lee, & Paul Raci.  

With this newfound attention on Deaf people and Sign across video games, film, TV, and more – the question arises of what exactly is the difference between deaf lowercase, versus the capitalized variant Deaf? The Ad Astra crew carved out some time for an open discussion led by our Deaf and Hard of Hearing department to lift the curtain on the application and use of these two distinct terms.  

Ad Astra Deaf verses deaf Blog Header
The Ad Astra Deaf and Hard of Hearing team chat about the topic at hand.

Little D and Big D

Everyone in our chat comes from different backgrounds, family types or generationally Deaf histories and everyone brought their unique perspectives to this topic. An individual’s viewpoint will be informed by personal life experience, education, and other factors – and none of these items necessarily make them an authority or spokesperson. Some people couldn’t care less which term is used or take much stock in the perceived distinctions. That said though, we’ll start by exploring the raw definitions and use of the terms deaf and Deaf.  

So, at its most linguistically basic, here in the North Americas deaf with lowercase d can refer simply to the medical condition of deafness. Merriam-Webster defines it as “having total or partial hearing loss”.  One can be considered deaf at varying degrees of hearing loss, which is why the term “hard of hearing” is often times abridged to “deaf”. 

Now Deaf with a capital D has a seemingly simpler explanation. Most commonly Deaf refers to the culturally Deaf diaspora. But what exactly does this mean? Let’s get into the weeds and explore how these umbrella terms intersect and can be used. 

[Editors Note – though we commonly always capitalize “Deaf” in our social media and blogs –  for the sake of this piece to distinguish the two from this section onward we will switch to using deaf lowercase to refer to condition and Deaf uppercase to refer to culture. The term dDeaf is also used in this article to encompass both culturally] 


Deeper Dive Into Deaf

So we’ve established the broad distinctions of deaf and Deaf, but here’s where unique experience and histories inform whether an individual prefers using capital Deaf as one of their identifiers.  

Say you’re the only Deaf individual in your family, put into speech classes at a young age and operate in an oralism framework (read more here to learn about oralism and its complex and pernicious history). You might grow in to being an adult that might identify less with the broader Deaf diaspora. 

A more recent example of this was Abigail Heringer from the TV show “The Bachelor”. Born with hearing loss, she received cochlear-implants and was raised using the speech and oral methodology. Although she learned Sign Language later in life, she does not personally identify as upper case Deaf due to not feeling quite part of the community. Conversely, a late-deafened  individual (someone who loses their hearing later in life) could assimilate into Deaf culture. 

Individuals that are generationally Deaf and have longer histories of Deafness recurring in their family typically identify themselves as Deaf – with sign language and their culturally rich lineage informing large parts of their identity.  

Now we saw an example of why someone might not identify as Deaf and why others do. Parallel to this, we’ve also got to remember that even under the Deaf umbrella there are Queer Deaf communities, Black Deaf communities that are signing both American Sign Language and Black American Sign Language, other types of Disabled Deaf communities and onward.   

How these groups and individuals apply deaf or Deaf is also unique to their experience and how they want to communicate their identity. This is also why it is incredibly important that it’s best to ask individuals how they self-identify; what labels or terms do they prefer to mark their identity to the public?

Misconceptions and Musings

Here’s where we’ll get into some of the misconceptions that hearing communities and dominant US culture might have regarding our Deaf and Hard of Hearing peers and friends.  

-Not all dDeaf people can lip read or want to for that matter 

Depending on the type of early education or linguistic training one receives, they might have been subject to this speech-based trick. Those placed in speech at a young age are forced to adapt to a hearing world and in turn learn to vocalize speech, look to lips for cues to try to piece spoken language together and more. Not all dDeaf people have this training or want, and it can be incredibly exhausting for those that do. Also, for those hearing individuals reading this – can you lip read??  

-Not all dDeaf people have the same level of hearing loss  

Thinking back to our early audiological framing of hearing loss and hearing range – all deaf people have different levels of hearing, ranging from the profoundly deaf (no hearing) to moderate. You can be partially hearing and still identify as Deaf or partially hearing and identify as deaf. Depending on the type of hearing loss one has, certain consonants can be audible or inaudible.  

-Literacy and written English levels vary 

American Sign Language is not the same thing as written or spoken English. English is a second language for Deaf people, making them bilingual or multilingual depending on their native and acquired languages. The level of written English teaching and education they’ve received differs depending on background, level of access to education etc., just like for hearing people raised in the US. 

-Deaf people need help 

A quick search of YouTube or many a deaf performer or celebrities’ social media can yield the frustrating clips of getting off a plane and being greeted by an attendant with a wheelchair… Puzzling. The broader corporate media and industries can better support dDeaf patrons through simple acts like captions on time-based media, designing menus and online systems with language accessibility in mind, creating better question sets for necessary assistive technologies and aides or simply hiring or training staff to be more sensitive and inclusive in their interactions with deaf consumers.  

-Communication and language brokering  

A common pet peeve that many dDeaf individuals face is the assumption that a sibling beside them (or anyone in their vicinity) is assumed to be their interpreter. While Siblings of Deaf Adults commonly do sign with their dDeaf siblings, people must be careful to not assume that they will interpret for their sister’s therapist etc. Healthcare settings, legal interactions, and government agencies are legally required to ensure Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals have communication access via interpretation services – so make that effort to get an interpreter on-site or virtually. Don’t assume that the dDeaf patient should be responsible for this on their own. 

The team share some strange and troublesome misconceptions.

The Road Ahead

Now you have a better sense of what a little capitalization can do or mean when discussing deaf and Deaf and hopefully a better grip on the complexity of these descriptors. We saw some pop culture gains that have made a splash, but the continued oppression and discrimination that the Deaf communities face will take a lot more work to begin undoing than a few guest spots on TV. 

Showing up to doctors’ appointments and not being granted an interpreter, difficult employees who refuse to serve deaf people and dangerous instances of police or law enforcement systems deliberately assigning cops pretending to know sign language or refusing interpreter access show how much more work must be done. In addition to broader public education and better public funding for language access in ADA compliant settings, acceptance and empathy ultimately will allow the nation to appreciate the significance of the people behind the term dDeaf. Get a notepad, open up notepad on your phone, book an interpreter or learn ASL if you want to help bridge this gap.


No dDeaf individual wants to act as a walking teacher or a human lesson to the unfamiliar, so we encourage digging deeply into good resources, literature and media to start your journey in understanding.  

Here are some additional resources and people to check out for you to gain some insight and deeper appreciation.