Deaf or Hard of Hearing: What’s the Difference?

Having trouble hearing people speak or even hearing your own voice can make it difficult to operate within the hearing community.

For individuals with hearing loss ensuring they have the tools necessary to communicate effectively is essential.

A first step in advocating for better, more effective communication methods for the deaf community is understanding the differences between deafness and partial hearing loss. 

We’ll discuss them and explain how technological advancements and medical devices have dramatically changed the deaf culture. 

How Do We Define Different Degrees of Hearing Loss?

People who are deaf are usually defined as people who cannot hear at all or cannot hear in one or both ears.

However, the legal definition of deafness includes people who are hard of hearing. 

For our discussion, we’ll limit the definition of deafness to people who cannot hear from both ears and require alternative means of communication to converse with others.

This would mean the person has very little functioning hearing or no functioning hearing at all.

Hard of Hearing

Someone hard of hearing may also be deaf or have a hearing impairment requiring them to use devices like hearing aids or cochlear implants.

However, some individuals prefer the term “hard of hearing” because it removes the negative connotation associated with “hearing impairment.”

Hearing loss is measured by the decibel level you can hear. If you cannot hear noises under 90 dB, you are said to have profound hearing loss.

Noises in the 90 dB and above range include power tools like leaf blowers or the level of music at a concert. 

Moderate Hearing Loss

Because hearing loss uses a scale, people who cannot hear between 41 and 55 decibels are said to have moderate hearing loss.

At this level of hearing loss, you not only can’t hear people whispering or rain falling, but you’ve also lost the ability to hear appliances humming or water babbling in a brook. 

Severe Hearing Loss

If your audiogram (a hearing test given by a doctor) reports that you cannot hear noises that register between 71 and 90 decibels, you are said to have severe hearing loss.

This hearing loss is significant and can dramatically impact your life. 

People with severe hearing loss cannot hear other people talking, a telephone ringing, a visitor ringing the doorbell, or the noise of nearby vehicle traffic.

This type of hearing loss can change how a person lives their life; if not addressed with proper treatment, the person may become reclusive.

Other Descriptors in the Deaf Community


Deaf-blind individuals have a combination of hearing and vision loss.

The loss may be total or partial. A deaf-blind person may be totally deaf and partially blind, totally blind and partially deaf, or deaf and blind. 

These individuals usually rely on alternative methods of communication to help them lead normal, fulfilling lives. 


People can be born with hearing impairments or develop them over time as they age.

Someone who develops hearing loss later in life is said to be late-deafened. 

This umbrella term encompasses some of the most common types of hearing loss, including age-related, sensorineural, and conductive hearing loss. 

This is also the type of hearing loss you might experience from exposure to loud noise or working in a loud environment. 

What Are the Solutions for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing?

New technology and legislation have made it easier for people with hearing impairment to thrive.

Here are some of the developments we have made to support those with hearing loss.

Americans With Disabilities Act

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed by Congress in 2010.

This act gave people in the deaf community rights to certain audiological devices that help them work more effectively and communicate more easily. 

This act provides advocacy for better communication access.

It ensures that in business and work, people with hearing impairment can have tools that make communication as easy for them as it is for someone without a hearing impairment. 

As part of this act, telecommunication providers now offer auxiliary aid services, like closed-captioning and TTY devices.

TTY devices, or teletypewriters, help someone who is deaf communicate by translating speech to text in real-time. 

Hearing Aids

No longer the large, obvious devices once associated with the elderly, hearing aids today are streamlined and virtually undetectable in someone’s ear.

They work by amplifying sound through a microphone, amplifier, and speaker. 

Sign Language

People who are completely deaf or have severe hearing loss may rely on American Sign Language (ASL) for communication.

ASL is a method of communicating with the hands. Many broadcasters and speakers, for instance, have sign language interpreters present to translate for deaf members of the listening audience. 

Assistive Technology

Assistive listening devices, also known as ALDs, amplify sound so that a hard-of-hearing listener can easily participate in a conversation or hear more clearly over background noise.

These can include specialized headphones that amplify sound or voice-to-text devices. 


Reading lips is still a favored means of communication for people with hearing impairment.

Many deaf people use lip reading naturally when hearing people speak. If hearing loss is only partial, lip-reading can be a useful tool to help compensate for the loss of hearing and keep the person in the conversation. 

Hard of Hearing Services

Many companies, employers, and businesses offer special services for people who are hard of hearing.

The ADA requires service providers to provide certain auxiliary devices and tools. Still, many companies go above and beyond, offering personal ASL interpreters as an alternative mode of communication. 

Cochlear Implants

One of the biggest advancements in hearing technology is the cochlear implant.

For an individual with total or close to total hearing loss, a cochlear implant can give them the ability to hear sound. 

Cochlear devices are surgically implanted and bypass portions of the ear that may be damaged.

The implants collect sound waves and convert them to electrical signals. These signals are delivered directly to the auditory nerve, which then sends them to the brain. The brain then interprets the electrical signals as the sounds we hear. 

How Can I Protect My Hearing?

Hearing is precious, and you can be proactive in keeping your hearing safe, especially from noise induced hearing loss, the most preventable of all types of hearing loss.

  • Keep volumes low. Music and headphones at a decibel lower than 70 can protect your hearing.
  • Wear earplugs when operating power tools. Wear earplugs or hearing protection when using lawn equipment and power tools to ensure your hearing is safe.
  • Avoid noisy environments, if possible. When you can’t avoid loud noise, use hearing protection. This can mean wearing earplugs when you are watching fireworks or when you attend a rock concert. 
  • Get your hearing tested regularly. Your primary care provider or an audiologist can test your hearing to determine if you have hearing loss. They can further assist you with treatment options if you have hearing loss. 

Keeping your ears safe is important and can help you maintain your hearing.

For more information and tips on other hearing treatments and conditions, check out the USA Rx blog

References, Studies and Sources:

ADA Requirements: Effective Communication| 

Definition: deaf from 20 USC § 4360(a)(2) | LII / Legal Information Institute|Law 

How are the terms deaf, deafened, hard of hearing, and hearing impaired typically used? | DO-IT 

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