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Hey Google: Define "Deaf"

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

Have you ever Googled yourself? Seriously, most of us have at one point... Did you find anything surprising? What you expected? What if you Googled one of your identities such as your nationality, religion, gender, orientation or life experience? How would you feel if the results defined your identity as “lacking power…” or “lacking of ability…”? This is what happens when I Google one of the most defining characteristics of my identity: being a Deaf person.



When I run a search for “what does deaf mean?” The result is the Oxford definition for “deaf” as “lacking the power of hearing or having impaired hearing … unwilling or unable to hear or pay attention to something”. Really? Is that the best Google can do with all of its nearly infinite resources? I would not have gotten very far in life if I believed in either definition. Although somewhat helpful, one does not need the power of hearing to become a civil rights attorney or a startup founder.

As a Deaf person and a civil rights attorney, I constantly search the internet for a lot of things related to Deaf and hard of hearing people, Deaf Culture, and the Deaf Community. Needless to say, I was surprised to find such an inaccurate (and quite frankly, offensive) “definition” glaring out at me from my screen. Since when does being Deaf have anything to do with lacking in power or ability? “Hey Google: define ‘abelism.”

I do not expect that every person should have an understanding of what it’s like to be Deaf, or to even know much about Deaf Culture, but such a blatant mischaracterization on an Internet search result is not just from a lack of understanding. What it really represents is marginalization and ableism. The definition of the word Deaf or a community by any publisher, must include consultation with and buy-in from the very community it intends to define in order to be accurate and inclusive.

Even the examples Google displays using the word “deaf” are totally abhorrent: "I'm a bit deaf so you'll have to speak up" and "she is deaf to all advice” do nothing but perpetuate the misconception that being deaf is deficient and solely indicates the lack of abilities. The definition fails to recognize that Deaf people are a linguistic and cultural community.
Can you imagine a Deaf child seeking to understand their situation, running a Google search, and finding this? What could serve as a distinct opportunity to inform that child of their unique abilities and incredible community instead becomes a defining, likely traumatic moment they will never forget and totally misinforms them about what being Deaf means. This definition only serves to perpetuate the medical model which perceives Deaf people as needing to be fixed. Every parent of a Deaf child is sold this medical model propaganda which
portrays the Deaf community as deficient and given a grim picture for their child’s future.
Do not get me wrong. I am all for giving each and every child full access to language. resources and assistive technology. But let us recognize that having perfect hearing does not create a superior person.
To many people, this definition seems to make sense, but here’s the thing: limiting examples of the word ‘deaf’ to what is basically a slang use of the word is actually misinforming people. If someone is looking up the word “deaf” and gets this abomination of a definition, then are they actually learning the meaning of the word? I fail to see any benefit from perpetuating this kind of ignorance.

Even though a whopping 15% of Americans are Deaf or hard of hearing, society has been designed by and for hearing people. Achieving accessibility and inclusion for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing is a real challenge in many ways. From childhood, many Deaf and hard of hearing people are misunderstood, deprived of an appropriate education, and denied access to basic things taken for granted by others. Many are not able to find comfort in their own families or social circles and spend a lifetime searching for their place in the world. Advances in technological resources have helped to overcome some communication barriers, but they aren’t perfect, and they aren’t always available. Educators, employers and lawmakers are making progress in accessibility for those who need it, but there’s still a long road ahead.

Like our hearing friends, family, and colleagues, we want the opportunity to be ourselves and to be understood. Being Deaf is far more than the “inability to hear”, and it’s certainly not a matter of choice or willingness. We have our own complex culture, our own rich languages, and our own social beliefs and traditions. We are a linguistic and cultural minority. We are a group of people who are strong, intelligent, and most importantly, powerful and able. I’ve spent the entirety of my career advocating for accessibility and I’ll tell you something- it does not just mean more resources for people who are Deaf. It is equally as important to break down attitudinal barriers and that all starts with the basics especially including definitions. Deaf people aren’t defined by what we can’t do and who we aren’t. We are defined by what we can do and who we are.


So, can we set this record straight and try this again one more time? “Hey Google: define ‘Deaf’.”
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