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Guidelines for the media

Deaf Arts Network welcomes opportunities for media representation of Deaf people, as greater representation also means greater awareness and understanding of the Deaf community. 

On this page, you'll find some guidelines to assist you in making sure that the language you use and the images you use in media are accurate, responsible and respectful.


There are many ways to describe people with varying degrees or kinds of deafness, each of which has a clearly defined meaning. The most important of these terms are defined below, but it is always a good idea to check with the subjects of media pieces to determine how they feel comfortable being described.

  • Deaf (with a capital D) is used to describe those who use Auslan to communicate, and who identify as members of the signing Deaf community. These people may also identify themselves as ‘culturally Deaf’. They are more likely to have been born deaf or become deaf early in life.
  • deaf (with a small d) is a more general term used to describe the physical condition of not hearing; it is also to describe people who are physically deaf, but do not identify as members of the signing Deaf community.
  • Hard of hearing is the term usually preferred by those who have acquired hearing loss, or who have a mild or moderate hearing loss. These people usually communicate using speech, lip-reading and residual hearing (often amplified by hearing aids).
  • Hearing-impaired is sometimes used as an alternative term for hard of hearing. This term is considered offensive by many people in the Deaf and hard of hearing communities.

Using the wrong word can offend. Culturally Deaf people do not like the term ‘hearing-impaired’, perceiving it as negative and clinical. Many hard of hearing people do not like being identified by the terms ‘Deaf’ or ‘deaf’. This is why it's so important to check language with your subjects. Where referring to a mixed group of people, it is perfectly okay to use more than one term, e.g. ”Television subtitles are enjoyed by Deaf and hard of hearing people throughout Australia.”

Negative, inappropriate and outmoded terms should be avoided, such as:

  • 'Deaf and dumb' or 'deaf mute'
  • Language such as 'victim of', suffers from' or 'afflicted by'
  • 'Abnormal' - and hearing people should be referred to as 'hearing', not as 'normal'

Challenging stereotypes

Arts Access Victoria and the Deaf Arts Network encourage anyone writing about or presenting on issues related to Deaf or hard of hearing people to challenge some of their (and the public's) assumptions to reflect a more accurate and respectful view of these communities. Here are some common stereotypes or misconceptions – and their corrections – about Deaf and hard of hearing people:

  • Deaf and hard of hearing people are always unhappy about their deafness.
    Deaf people are rarely unhappy about being deaf, though they may feel frustrated by discrimination and obstruction. Hard of hearing people, especially those who have recently lost their hearing, may be unhappy about their condition, but this should never be assumed.
  • Deaf and hard of hearing people would welcome any opportunity to become hearing.
    Most Deaf people have no desire to become hearing and are not interested in medical interventions. Those whose deafness or hearing loss was acquired later in life may often wish to regain their hearing, but again this should not be assumed.
  • Sign languages are “compensatory” systems and should be discarded in favour of speech wherever possible.
    Auslan is an officially-recognised community language which meets the full range of needs of its community of users. Those who use it are proud of their language, and usually wish to promote its use and acceptance.
  • Sign language is universal.
    Most countries have a distinct sign language, though there are ‘families’ of related sign languages. Auslan is very similar to British Sign Language for example, but quite different from American Sign Language. International gatherings of deaf people will often use a system called ‘International Sign’ or ‘Gestuno’, though this does not function the same way as a full sign language.
  • School programs which focus on teaching Deaf children to speak are superior to those that use sign language.
    Educational programs for deaf and hard of hearing children use a variety of communication strategies, ranging from bilingual programs using Auslan and English, through to programs using only speech and amplified hearing. It should never be assumed that there is agreement that any one of these methods is superior or more effective for deaf and hard of hearing children.
  • Deaf and hard of hearing people are necessarily dependent on others, and need assistance with every day tasks.
    The vast majority of Deaf and hard of hearing people go about their daily lives with minimal assistance from others. They hold down jobs, bring up families and participate in the community – and yes, they can drive!
  • Devices such as hearing aids and cochlear implants make deaf and hard of hearing people hear ‘normally’.
    These devices don't correct hearing loss in the way glasses can correct vision impairment. They amplify sound to varying degrees, but never approach anything like the clarity of full hearing. The wearer is still a Deaf or hard of hearing person.
  • Deaf and hard of hearing people cannot hear or speak at all.
    There is an enormous range of Deaf and hard of hearing people can hear, with or without assistive devices. Deaf people’s vocal cords are the same as those of hearing people; while most can vocalise and many can speak, many others find that speech is not a possible or effective method of communication.
  • All Deaf and hard of hearing people can lip read.
    Lip-reading depends heavily on knowledge of the language being lip-read. Only about one-third of English sounds are visible on the lips, and not everyone speaks in a way which lends itself to lip-reading. It is not always an easy or reliable method of communicating, and Deaf and hard of hearing people vary in their use of it.

Other Issues

  • Every effort should be made to interview and/or seek information from those who are Deaf or hard of hearing themselves. This may often mean using Auslan interpreters to communicate with Deaf people. In such situations professional interpreters accredited by the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI) should be used.
  • Family members, co-workers, friends or other unqualified or inappropriate persons should not provide information about Deaf people, or interpret for them.
  • Always get approval from the Deaf or hard of hearing individuals you are profiling. Respect their right to be represented as they wish and their right to privacy. 
  • When opinions on issues relating to deafness are being sought, every attempt should be made to contact Deaf or hard of hearing people with special knowledge of the issue concerned. Journalists are strongly encouraged to approach Vicdeaf or Deaf Australia for assistance in this regard.


Header image: Deaf Can Dance performs at the Coonawarra & Penola Festival, 2010