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Individual differences |
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Deaf-mute was a term historically used by hearing people to identify a person who was deaf and could not speak. In the past "deaf-mute" was socially acceptable, usually to describe deaf people who use a signed language, but is now considered offensive (similar to the way that "colored" was once used to describe African Americans but is now looked upon as derogatory). The preferred term today is simply "deaf".
The term "deaf-mute" first appears in the Code of Hammurabi, an ancient set of laws from the near east, in 1700 BC.  It is also referenced in ancient Greek writing of the 7th century BC. It continues to be used to refer to deaf people, mainly within a historical context, to indicate deaf people who cannot speak, or have some degree of speaking ability, but choose not to speak because of the negative or unwanted attention atypical voices sometimes attract.
Additionally, it is sometimes used to refer to other hearing people in jest, to chide, or to invoke an image of someone who refuses to employ common sense or who is unreliable. "Deaf and dumb," "semi-deaf" and "semi-mute" are other historic references to deaf people. Of these latter examples, only "deaf and dumb" prevails as a reference.
There are connotations of insensitivity to deaf people concerning these terms of reference and for this reason the prevailing terms are generally looked upon as insulting, inaccurate or socially and politically incorrect. From antiquity (as noted in the Code of Hammurabi) until recent (and less enlightened) times , the terms "deaf-mute" and "deaf and dumb" were even considered analogous to "idiot" by some hearing people.
In Europe and western society, most deaf people are taught to speak with varying outcomes of ability or degrees of fluency. The simple identity of "deaf" has been embraced by the community of signing deaf people since the foundations of public deaf education in the 18th century and remains the preferred term of reference or identity for many years.
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