"Big D" and "Small d" in the Deaf Community

How Do You Identify in Deaf Culture?

3 girls communicating with american sign language
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In deaf culture, there are two separate spellings of the word "deaf." They are "big D" Deaf and "small d" deaf and people who are deaf tend to associate with one or the other. It may seem arbitrary, but there is a difference.

Defining "Big D" and "Small d" d/Deaf

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."

Examples of "Big D" and "Small d"

These seem to be stereotypical associations, but it is similar to how some people prefer black and others African-American. 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."

  • Someone is totally deaf, can not read lips, and uses sign language. They are married to a hearing person and do not associate with other deaf people. This person would probably be "small d" even though they have a total hearing loss and must rely on sign language for communication.
  • Another person is totally deaf, can read lips, and communicates orally. They married another oral deaf person and socialize primarily with other oral deaf people. Despite their refusal to use sign language, they 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. They are 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 attitude towards his hearing loss and strong identification with the deaf community.

It's a 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 think it's such a big deal. The point is that it is a personal choice and way of looking at yourself. There is no right or wrong.

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