Audism - Painting by Nancy Rourke
'Audism' painting by the world-renowned Deaf painter - Nancy Rourke.


That word has been around for a while, but I don’t feel like people really know what it means.

The word was coined in 1975 by Tom Humphries in an unpublished essay. Throughout the years, many scholars have taken the word and expanded on the definition. However, I still remember the first time I heard the word. It was in 2006, at the Moon Under Water pub on Charing Cross Road on a Wednesday evening. It was the weekly Deaf gathering and I was talking to my friends when See Hear asked me if I’d like to take part in their vox pop. I gladly obliged and stood in front of the camera.

“Do you know what Audism is?

“Of course I do.

“Would you like to explain what it means?

I confidently smiled and began to explain.

“Autism is a spectrum condition. It varies from person to person. Some are nonverbal, some have challenges with their social skills and some like repetitive behaviours.

This went on for 30 seconds, and when I had finished, the interviewer tried to contain her giggles, and finger-spelt to me.

A-U-D-I-S-M not A-U-T-I-S-M.”


I could see my friends giggling at me. It completely went over my head – I had never heard of the word before and had no idea what it meant.

“Umm.. I don’t know?

They explained the concept to me.

‘Audism is the notion that one is superior based on one’s ability to hear or to behave in the manner of one who hears, or that life without hearing is futile and miserable, or an attitude based on pathological thinking which results in a negative stigma toward anyone who does not hear.

“Oh, okay. Thanks.”

I went back to my friends and didn’t give it any more thought.

When I look back on that evening, it astounds me. How could I not have known what audism was? I know what racism is, what homophobia is, what sexism is… and yet I didn’t know the word linked to the system of oppression that I face the most?

There is something seriously wrong here. We should be learning about audism in school, but incongruously we aren’t because of audism itself. It’s almost paradoxical.

Audism can be broken down in three levels; Macro-aggression, meso-aggression and micro-aggression.

Micro-aggression are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative audist slights and insults toward Deaf people that establish, reflect and reinforce the dominance of the hearing majority.

Meso-aggression is the reinforcement through various institutions the dominance of hearing majority in our social, cultural, political, linguistic education and economical system.

Macro-aggression is the colonisation of the social, cultural, political, linguistic education and economical system to establish, reflect and reinforce the dominance of the hearing majority.

Phono-centrism is the belief that sounds and speech are inherently superior to, or more primary than, written language. When you enforce those beliefs, this is audism.

Micro-aggression is a personal one, because it is more than often committed by people in your circle, is said directly to your face, or you may have unknowingly committed it yourself a few times. How many times have you seen people pull faces at you and waved their hands about – mocking sign language? How many times have you commented on a Deaf person’s literacy skills? Here’s a question for you. Would you make fun of a person exhibiting psycho-social problems as a result of abuse? No. Yet there will be times when we make fun of people with poor literacy skills as a result of neglect – how does that make us any different from them?

Another example would be speaking on behalf for someone, without asking them if they wanted you to do so. How many times have you done that? I know I’ve done this plenty of times, and in hindsight, I shouldn’t have done it, and I feel bad about it now. I would speak because I thought it would be quicker to get the point across and perhaps would make it less embarrassing for the person to have to repeat themselves. I now realise that it’s not my place to decide how people should communicate effectively. By speaking for them, I am taking their voice away, regardless of whether they want to use it or not. By speaking for them, I am saying that this person is incapable of communicating with you when they perfectly well are. It just may not be in a conventional way.

Now, meso-aggression… this is where it gets interesting. This is when organisations implement an hearing-centric approach in the Deaf community. Have you read articles or statements released by Deaf organisations saying that they wish to find a cure for hearing loss? This statement is effectively saying that hopefully in the near future, our language and culture as we know it, will cease to exist. All the while, they still provide services for Deaf BSL users. I feel this is contradictory. They do not have a global viewpoint – it’s purely linear. They don’t take into account that Deaf people see themselves as a linguistic minority, and regardless of the barriers we face daily, we see our language and culture as a thing of beauty, not a hindrance. While it could be argued that they do fight for us, that is marred by the fact that they continuously try to promote a cure for deafness. If you apply this ethos to the hearing community, you’d be hard pressed to find an organisation that does the same. Nevertheless, let’s draw some comparisons.

BSL is often compared to the Welsh language in terms of being a linguistic minority. Welsh speakers were once a marginalised group, but now they are trying to promote and support the use of the Welsh language by giving it legal recognition, and conservation projects are now underway. They are respectful of the heritage, and that is evident by the offering of bilingual schools, and several Welsh channels on TV. This proves that language is not a barrier. Deafness is inevitable in some cases, and instead of trying to eradicate it, they should be making adjustments to make sure it’s not an issue by ensuring provisions are in place.

An example of macro-aggression in today’s society would be mainstreaming. Nowadays, the Local Education Authority will send children to a school where they will most likely be the only deaf person there. The reason for this? Funding. Sending a child to a specialised school where all their needs will be met is too costly for them. Sending them to a mainstream school is more cost-effective. They will be placed in classrooms with hearing children and be taught how to speak and listen. This is problematic in many ways. Firstly, exposure to spoken language does not necessarily result in language fluency,[1] even with cochlear implants and rehabilitation training.[2] If you do not provide them with an accessible language, this is language deprivation. Secondly, they will be growing up without their peers – deaf children – and therefore will miss out on developing their deaf identity. Social interaction is vital for their personal development, therefore if you mainstream them, you are preventing them from connecting to their culture.

I understand that society may not understand our culture – and perhaps that’s why they try to reinforce their phono-centric views upon us – but they only need to look at our history and our achievements to realise that actually, we’re perfectly capable. Research shows that ‘maintenance bilingual education  is the best form of education. This means the child will be able to use both minority and majority language in school. The majority language does not have to be a spoken one – it can still be English, but taught through sign language. This means the child is able to keep their mother tongue and continue to progress academically. They will be bicultural and bilingual.

Words are powerful tools. They have the power to make or break you.

‘Don’t let anyone make you second guess yourself. Be secure in who you are and don’t tolerate disrespect.Reyna Biddy


Some of anti-audism campaigns from around the world: 


5 Signs of Audism – created by Ai-Media:



[1] Mayberry R, Fischer S. Looking through Phonological Shape to Lexical Meaning: The Bottleneck of Non-native Sign Language Processing. Memory and Cognition. 1989;17(6):740–754.
Newport E. Maturational Constraints on Language Learning. Cognitive Science. 1990;14(1):11–28.
Emmorey K, Corina D. Lexical Recognition in Sign Language: Effects of Phonetic Structure and Morphology. Perceptual and Motor Skills. 1990;71(3f):1227–1252.
Emmorey K. Repetition Priming with Aspect and Agreement Morphology in American Sign Language. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research. 1991;20(5):365–388.
Mayberry R, Eichen E. The Long-lasting Advantage of Learning Sign Language in Childhood: Another Look at the Critical Period for Language Acquisition. Journal of Memory and Language. 1991;30(4):486–512.
See Curtiss, supra note 4; Grimshaw G, Adelstein A, Bryden M, MacKinnon G. First-Language Acquisition in Adolescence: Evidence for a Critical Period for Verbal Language Development. Brain and Language. 1998;63(2):237–255.
Newport E, Bavelier D, Neville HJ. Critical Thinking about Critical Periods: Perspectives on a Critical Period for Language Acquisition. In: Dupoux E, editor. Language, Brain, and Cognitive Development: Essays in Honor of Jacques Mehler. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 2001. pp. 481–502. among many.

[2] Humphries T, Kushalnagar P, Mathur G, Napoli DJ, Padden C, Rathmann C, Smith S. Cochlear Implants and the Right to Language: Ethical Considerations, Ideal Situation, and Practical Measures Toward Reaching the Ideal.
In: Umat C, Tange RA, editors. Cochlear Implant Research Updates. InTech; 2012. Available online. (last visited November 13, 2013) Humphries T, Kushalnagar P, Mathur G, Napoli DJ, Padden C, Rathmann C, Smith S. Bilingualism: A Pearl to Overcome Certain Perils of Cochlear Implants. Journal of Medical Speech-Language Pathology. 2014.

[3] Featured image – ‘Audism’ painting by the world-renowned Deaf painter – Nancy Rourke – visit website.


  1. Great article Abigail

    I collected written comments / views on my personal speech notebook about audism. Perhaps this may help

    English language like many spoken languages is audistic. It just conforms to hearing people’s view of the world. Audistic, because according to the definition of audism I developed as “having the conscious or unconscious mentality that over-values hearing and speech as the sole means of communication, on which prejudices about better quality of life and greater safety are based, and by which discriminations in deeds, words, and thoughts are generated against deaf and hard-of-hearing people.” Discriminations can range from being benign and “harmless” to harmful, like certain oppressive behaviors that we experience throughout the history. Audism is culturally dependent, as cultures may differ in its extent, and acquired through enculturation. For example, audism may be measured to be more prevalent in Germany than in the USA. (The rate of CI implantations of babies and toddlers is higher in Germany than in the USA)

    Only we deafies (and HoH) define what would be acceptable, just tolerable, or audistically unacceptable to us,
    Audism touches upon many areas of life, one of which is language, as used by hearing people and deaf/hard-of-hearing persons as these absorb the values and lingo of the hearing environment.

    A few examples of the audistic vocabulary are mute, verbal. German has a few more, Some terms are only relatively audistic, depending on the context and usage. The words hear, speak, non-verbal, hearing impairment, hearing loss, hearing rehabilitation, language acquisition are among of them. Many English speakers restrict “verbal” and “mute” to the use of language by oral/vocal means only. However, you can make them less audistic, when you use them for using a manual language You can be mute in sign language, because you may not know sign language, are dumbfounded/speechless, or unable to answer. Why not?! The use of “mute” in USA or “dumb” in UK has been known discriminatory in the lives of deaf people. Sign language is also verbal, because “verbal” means using of words and sign language also uses words (signs are equivalent to words in linguistics). Anyone saying that sign language is a nonverbal language is definitely an audist, at least unintentionally.

    As to relatively audistic words, “hear” is often harmless and does not become discriminatory. as in “I heard the baby crying, a crash;”. It is often used in the expanded sense to mean “perceive”, “listen” as in “I heard a story”, which a deafie can say, without anyone thinking, he heard it auditorilly and got puzzled about it. Readers of this blog can figure out for themselves, when those relatively audistic terms are audistic and when not. It becomes discriminatory, in yelling to a deaf person “Why can’t you hear?”. “You must learn to hear and speak in order to integrate in the society”

    The term “hearing impaired” implies too strongly that a human being ought to be hearing, would be complete or perfect with the sense of hearing intact. By this, it is audistic. The same goes for “hearing loss”. They would be not(less) audistic, if describing someone to have had the ability to hear. Its usage should be restricted to describing one’s medical history. Otherwise, in the context of inability or having not heard something, better use it in terms of the naked inability to hear, like “I can’t hear you”, “I have a (some) hearing inability” Make it equal in value with the inability to walk, do mathematics, or to think, etc. that everyone has anyway. Nobody is perfect!

    It is also insane to use “hearing impaired” euphemistically instead of “deaf” or “hard-of-hearing”, “cannot hear”. Indeed insane to say “I am hearing impaired”! Why should anyone being ashamed of being deaf or hard of hearing or deaf? Nothing politically incorrect about this word! In the judgement of most, the replacement is worse than the to-be replaced ones.

    By thinking that way and using certain vocabulary in your communication less audistically, you relativize the value of hearing and speech. You can hear, you love music. That is good. I cannot hear and don’t give a damn about music. That is equally good. Neither hearing nor speech shall reign supreme! As we never say to a hearing person, “You should be deaf, you be better off if deaf”.

    Language reform is always part of any anti-…istic effort to reform society.

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