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Girl with a bull horn up her grandfathers hear.

What percentage of hearing loss means you’re legally deaf or medically deaf? Is there some kind of universal point at which the line is drawn between hearing loss and deafness? Those might sound like philosophical, esoteric questions, but they’re not. Hearing loss labels affect whether you qualify for protection and can help you determine what treatment options are best for you.

How Do We Categorize Hearing Loss?

There are a number of terms and labels you can use to describe your hearing loss. This gives the individual a healthy amount of leeway when it comes to defining his or her own experience and identity.

There are several widely recognized frameworks you can use to help categorize your own hearing loss:

  • Medical categories focus on the biological function of your ears and the physical thresholds of your hearing. Medical categories exist primarily for diagnostic purposes to provide individuals with better treatment options.
  • Legal categories tend to focus on how the law intersects with those who have hearing loss. Legal categories can be attached to certain protections and rights under the law.

In addition to these categories, words also often have connotations that change how people feel. Some people still worry about a perceived stigma associated with hearing loss and try to avoid terms like “deafness”. For these people, phrases like “hard of hearing” or “that’s my bad ear” are more comfortable. It’s a way of exerting some agency over your hearing condition and how others perceive it.

So Why Do We Call it “Legally” Deaf?

We often hear people talk about whether someone is “legally deaf” or not, even though that phrase in and of itself can be fantastically nebulous. What qualifies as a legal hearing disability can change depending on the specific law it’s referencing.

For example:

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) qualifies any kind of hearing loss as a disability if it limits your participation in life events (either currently or in the past) or if an employer perceives it as possibility limiting your participation. Meeting this requirement under the ADA entitles you to certain rights and protections under the law.
  • The Social Security Administration (SSA) office of disabilities requires that certain medical thresholds are met before they allow individuals access to disability benefits. If your hearing sensitivity is less than 90 dB (through the air) or you fail to repeat 40% of words in a word recognition test, you may be able to qualify for disability benefits under the SSA. Why do we say “may”?

Whether you are legally entitled to disability benefits or protections will change depending on what law you’re measuring your hearing loss against (and those laws vary from nation to nation and state to state).

So What Definition Should We Use?

Colloquially, we tend to consider individuals “hard of hearing” if they still retain a partial sense of hearing and “deaf” if they are mostly unable to hear. That mirrors, more or less, the way that the medical community categorizes hearing loss.

Medically, hearing loss is split up into four categories: mild, moderate, severe, and profound. Hearing loss reported in the severe and profound stages tends to be considered “deaf” by hearing professionals.

So if you really wanted to get into categories, you could easily consider the definition of “legally” deaf to begin when the hearing loss in your good ear reaches a range of 70-89 dB. This is the “severe” category of hearing loss. Anything over 90 dB of hearing loss is categorized as profound.

Why Does It All Matter?

The level of hearing loss that counts as a disability will change with every law you measure it against, so you’re really conjuring a matrix of legal definitions when you use the phrase “legally deaf.” The more you know about all the different legal and medical definitions, the better you’ll be able to select where you fit in–and which definition of “legally deaf” best applies to you.

Knowing how profound your hearing loss helps you determine when medical treatment is necessary and which treatments are right for you. Hearing loss has been associated with cognitive decline, depression and an increased risk in falls, so it’s important to treat it early. Treatment for hearing loss often includes hearing aids or some kind of assistive device. But which device will work for you will depend on your level of hearing loss, so the first step is to get a hearing test.

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