Self-Identification in the Deaf Community

In deaf culture, there are two separate spellings of the word "deaf." They are the "big D" Deaf in which a person identifies as a member of the deaf community and "small d" deaf in a person is deaf but doesn’t identify as such. As arbitrary as this may seem, there is a difference.


Generally, the "small d" deaf do not associate with other members of the deaf community. They may strive to identify themselves with hearing people, regard their hearing loss solely in medical terms. Some may also be progressively losing their hearing and not yet integrated into the deaf culture.

In contrast, "big D" Deaf people identify themselves as culturally deaf and have a strong deaf identity. They're often quite proud to be deaf. It's common that "big D" Deaf attended schools and programs for the deaf. The "small d" deaf tend to have been mainstreamed and may not have attended a school for the deaf.

When writing about deafness, many writers will use a capital D when referring to aspects of deaf culture. They will use a lower-case "d" when speaking solely about the hearing loss. Some simply use "d/Deaf."

While some may dismiss the differentiation as semantic, how deaf people identify plays a big role in how they access medical care and social services as well as how they address civil rights abuses in the face of discrimination.

While the purpose of the "big D" and "small D" are different, the designation can direct how an outreach may be conducted, how disbursements of services may be directed, and how to appropriately interact with an individual no matter how one identifies.


The deaf community has its own culture, and this is a legitimate subject of debate. There are some scenarios that typically find a person using either "big D" or "small d."

Three common scenarios can illustrate this:

  • A person is totally deaf, cannot read lips, and uses sign language. He or she is married to a hearing person and does not associate with other deaf people. This person would probably be "small d" even though he has a total hearing loss and must rely on sign language for communication.
  • A second person is totally deaf, can read lips, and communicates orally. He or she is married to another oral deaf person and socializes primarily with other oral deaf people. Despite the refusal to use sign language, that person would likely lean toward "big D." That's because of the primary association with other deaf people even though the method of communication is not sign language.
  • A third person is medically hard of hearing and can talk on the telephone, but chooses to use sign language—ASL—as a key means of communication. He or she is also active in the deaf community's organizations and events and proud to have a hearing loss. This person would likely be "big D" because of his or her attitude toward hearing loss and a strong identification with the deaf community.

Personal Viewpoint

Ask any deaf person which they prefer and they'll likely have an answer. Some are more passionate about it than others and many have changed their views over the years.

For instance, there are deaf people who grew up oral and went to hearing schools, so their younger years were spent as "small d." Later, they may have studied at a deaf college, became more social in the deaf community, and began to lean toward "big D."

Many people use the larger deaf community as a gauge for their own identity; others don't consider deafness to be a defining feature.

However one identifies, "big D" and "small D" are simply reference points rather than a means of inclusion or exclusion. There is no right or wrong choice. It’s all about how you see yourself and the connections you make in the social order.

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  1. National Association of the Deaf. Community and Culture - Frequently Asked Questions. 2019.