As with people from all walks of life, deaf society enjoys many different social and cultural structures. It is only relatively recently that these unique approaches and conventions have begun to be explored and understood. As we strive to learn from and accommodate the deaf community, these all-important memes have become part of the way we communicate with and recognise the choices of deaf people and those with hearing loss.

One area that we still have a lot to learn about is how deaf people define their identity within the deaf and hearing worlds. The terms big D and little d are often used to describe those who choose to remain in the deaf community and those who actively associate with hearing people. How far are these generalised ‘categories’ a true reflection of how deaf people feel about their position in society? We ask the experts why it’s important that we all respect those who wish to identify with either or neither big D and little d.

What do the terms big D and little d mean?

Some deaf people may align themselves into two ‘categories’ - either Deaf with a capital D or being deaf with a little d. While these terms don’t begin to express the full spectrum of attitudes and conformities, or life experiences for that matter, they can help us to understand how identity differs in deaf culture.

Deaf Action has worked together with deaf people, providing the services to promote independence, challenging discrimination and raising awareness of the rights of those who are deaf across Scotland. They describe the key differences between big D and little d.

  • Big D deaf people are those who are born deaf or experience hearing loss before spoken language is acquired and regard their deafness as part of their identity and culture rather than as a disability. They form the Deaf Community and are predominantly British Sign Language (BSL) users.

  • Small d deaf people are those who have become deafened or hard of hearing in later life, after they have acquired a spoken language and so identify themselves with the hearing community. Small d deaf people are more likely to use hearing aids and develop lipreading skills.

“This is a complex area and there are always dangers in trying to simplify things. Also, the interpretation of big D/little d varies greatly and can be imprecise,” points out Helen from Deafax – an organisation that has been pioneering technology that can help to enhance the lives of and empower deaf people. Deafax, who themselves partner with those involved in health and education to deliver solutions, offers the NHS’s description of the terms from its Accessible Information Implementation Guidance programme to make important healthcare information available to patients and users in a format that is suitable for them. The NHS concludes:

“d/Deaf: a person who identifies as being deaf with a lowercase d is indicating that they have a significant hearing impairment. Many deaf people have lost their hearing later in life and as such may be able to speak and/or read English to the same extent as a hearing person. A person who identifies as being Deaf with an uppercase D is indicating that they are culturally Deaf and belong to the Deaf community. Most Deaf people are sign language users who have been deaf all of their lives. For most Deaf people, English is a second language and as such they may have a limited ability to read, write or speak English.

“It should be noted that the ability of d/Deaf people to read and understand written English varies considerably and it should not be assumed that having a conversation via written notes is an appropriate way of holding a dialogue. Similarly, it should not be assumed that because someone is wearing one or more hearing aids they no longer need any support to communicate, they may, for instance, be supporting their hearing via lipreading. The person’s communication needs must be established with them in the first instance.”

Who identifies with these terms?

Understanding Hearing

To understand why some deaf people would choose to identify with big D and little d, we first need to understand the different ways in which people are impacted by a hearing disability.

This is something that Julie Ryder, who founded HearFirst – a training and consultancy group – can relate to. Having lost her hearing in her 20s, Julie has been driven to educate service providers about deafness, encouraging them to consider the needs of deaf people and those living with disabilities. HearFirst continues this mission, developing training solutions and support for the deaf as well as diverse tenant involvement groups and volunteer teams with a more accessible and inclusive approach.

HearFirst explains the factors involved in recognising deafness and where people might fit in the spectrum.

“Deafness is sometimes described by: degree or its severity, onset or when it began, clinical measurement and functionality or what the person can hear.”

Sign Language

Sign language plays an important role in how deaf people communicate and is often a factor in the big D and little d debate. As Deaf Hub’s Katherine explains: “It is a very complex topic and is linked a lot to how people identify themselves both in terms of communication and culturally. In general terms big D is classified as someone who may identify themselves as using British Sign Language as their preferred language and sees themselves as part of the Deaf community rather than the hearing community.

“Little d often is someone who does not use British Sign language as their preferred method of communication and in the majority of cases is someone who has lost their hearing or has been able to make use of their hearing to communicate effectively.”

Deaf Hub itself promotes equal access for the deaf and hard of hearing, offering interpretation services to help them connect with and thrive in the wider community.

Likewise the Deaf Culture Centre, a unique centre in Birmingham that organises a number of art and community projects as well as social events specifically for deaf people, suggests that how deaf people communicate could be indicative of which term they might identify with: “Big D represents those who see themselves as deaf, they are usually the ones who prefer to communicate by sign language and are also heavily involved within the deaf community. Little d represents those who are deaf who can still hear quite well, can speak orally (although some do use sign language) and although some do attend deaf events, they are not as heavily involved in the deaf community. They more or less live in the ‘hearing’ world.”

So why would the way in which a person chooses to communicate be telling of how they might define themselves in the deaf and hearing worlds?

Deafax implies that we may be interpreting the definition of deafness wrong. Rather than think of ‘Deaf’ as a state of being or related to hearing ability, they say: “More simply, we understand the term ‘Deaf’ to refer more to membership of a particular linguistic and cultural grouping than to the physical condition of deafness. In these instances, sign language is usually the preferred method of communication.

“Deaf people who use sign language think of themselves as a distinct community. Because sign language influences culture, this community has a distinct culture. This Deaf community has its own rules of polite behaviour, social behaviour, and communication behaviour. “Those who are ‘deaf’ physically have some form of hearing loss but usually are not sign language users or see themselves as members of the ‘grass root’ deaf community.”

Deafax also suggests that it’s important to consider each case on an individual basis, informing us that 90% of big D children are born to hearing parents where British Sign Language is not the first language of their parents or immediate family. Instead they support the idea that to understand the impact of deafness on how children develop their identities, rather than looking at the degree of hearing loss it would be more helpful to know whether their deafness occurred pre or post-lingually. This would likely have had a major influence on their language acquisition.

Deaf Culture

Naturally, deaf culture as in any other culture is inclusive of much more than a linguistic or identity choice, reflecting the history, art and other achievements of deaf people. When we talk about Deaf with a capital D and lower case d, deaf people may or may not identify with either and “these terms affect those who feel strongly whether they are big D or little d,” describes the Deaf Culture Centre.

“You can say it’s all about identifying their own identity. Those who claim to be big D are usually very proud of the fact they are deaf and wish to make it known that that is part of who they are.

“Those who are classed as little d do not call themselves little d as that is something that has been labelled by the ones who like to be called big D and members of the deaf community.”

It’s also important to be aware that these terms can be misinterpreted by outside bystanders and identifying with either can be influenced by an individual’s life experience, not all deaf people would consider themselves a follower of deaf culture. The British Deaf Association advocates for deaf people in the UK, believing that every deaf person has the right to communicate in their preferred way, be it sign language or otherwise. They explain: “To be ‘deaf’ (small d) links with the medical definition of deafness as something to be cured or eradicated, also for those who choose or are not able to take part in the Deaf community, especially deaf people using oral communication. This does not make them culturally Deaf.”

Forming our identity in the world starts at a young age and it’s no different for deaf people. Our environment, education and background informs us from youth and often shapes the decisions we make later in life and how we see ourselves.

The British Deaf Association continues: “Many deaf children have been brought up orally by attending schools who don’t support or promote British Sign Language (BSL). Anti-sign language professionals say sign language does not help education and indeed even reduces job opportunities in later years. These are myths but they are views that still exists today. If you meet any deaf people and ask them about their hearing loss, they may say they would love to hear ‘sounds’ and how they missed out on music, radio or conversations. That they preferred to choose the spoken language and/or lipreading and not use sign language. Some also prefer not to be part of the Deaf community with many pretending to be hearing.

“Deaf (with a capital ‘D’) refers to people who are culturally Deaf. They actively use British Sign Language as their first or preferred language. They see themselves as part of the Deaf community, not disabled. For example, they run their own Deaf clubs, groups, activities, events, projects and use their own language - BSL.”

Just as some will actively identify with the terms big D and little d, many will also decide that either or both can’t accurately describe their position and do not relate to them.

“Deaf people are all individuals and the degrees of hearing loss they have vary widely and are not always straightforward to categorise,” says Deafax.

“People and organisations in this field also vary considerably in their approach to medical intervention regarding deafness – things like cochlear implants, for example - in how and by whom d/Deaf pupils should be taught, and which communication methods should be supported. All these, and many more factors, will have an effect on whether an individual identifies themselves as deaf or Deaf.”

As with many other topics that we previously may not have had a good understanding of, people have become more open-minded. When it comes to living with deafness today, young deaf people are making better informed decisions about where they want to sit within society and many believe that categorising people simply isn’t right. This idea is explored in the multimedia piece Hearing voices – Big D, little d and the deaf world.

Hard of hearing, Deafened vs Deaf chart

Why is it important that we know about big D and little d?

Around 1 in 6 of the population in Britain has some form of deafness and a staggering 70,000 people in the UK choose to use BSL as their first language, according to Deaf Action. With that many people deaf or affected by hearing loss, it is crucial that we understand their choices and how to make society more inclusive of these. “It is important for hearing people to understand terms such as big D and little d to give them insight into Deaf identity and how people perceive their own level of deafness. Often it can be empowering for people to feel they belong to a community where their needs are understood,” explains Deaf Hub.

Beyond inclusivity, there are two key reasons why it’s important that we know about big D and little d:

  1. Accessing information because people with hearing loss communicate in a variety of ways which means that they need a flexible approach in order to fully access information available to everyone.
  2. Developing attitudes and assumptions that are positive to counter misconceptions and misunderstandings so that we can build better relationships between individuals and organisations.

Needless to say, not every deaf person is the same and just as some will identify with big D or little d, others will not. The best advice when meeting someone new is simply to “be sensitive and aware,” says Deafax. “Ask the individual you’re talking with, don’t make assumptions and don’t trust labels!”

Retrieved from the Age UK website