We only realize how much we rely on our ears when we can no longer do so. And in many cases, someone suffering from hearing impairment might not even realize they're losing their hearing unless someone else points it out.

Even minor hearing loss can have a considerable impact on one's personal and professional life. But at what point does that impact become severe enough that one might consider it disabling? What level of hearing loss is necessary in order for it to be considered a disability? 

The answer to that question is somewhat complicated, depending on several interrelated factors. Before we begin, however, it's important to note that some within the Deaf community are strongly against referring to themselves as disabled. As such, if you're reading this because you believe it might be helpful to a hearing impaired loved one, we strongly recommend speaking to them first. 

So what percentage of hearing loss is required for you to be legally Deaf? What's the difference between medically and legally disabling hearing loss? Is there a standardized line to determine this, and if so, where is that line drawn? 

How to Categorize Your Hearing Loss

There are many different terms one can use to define hearing loss and many different frameworks that measure it. Which you personally choose and how they shape your identity is entirely up to you. With that said, determining your disability status primarily comes down to two perspectives: legal and medical. 

Hearing Loss from a Medical Perspective

This category primarily focuses on the physical capabilities and biological functionality of the ears. Thresholds are intended mainly for diagnostic purposes and are used to enable healthcare providers to determine the appropriate treatment. 

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information

  • Difficulty hearing sounds below 20 decibels (dB) is considered normal. 
  • Mild hearing loss refers to difficulty hearing sounds below 40 dB.
  • Moderate hearing loss refers to difficulty hearing sounds below 60 dB.
  • Severe hearing loss refers to difficulty hearing sounds below 80 dB.
  • Hearing loss over 81 dB is considered profound hearing loss. 

Under this framework, any hearing loss over 40 dB is considered an impairment. Severe and Profound hearing loss both fall under the umbrella of deafness. 

Hearing Loss from a Legal Perspective

The legal threshold for what constitutes disabling hearing loss is more of a guideline than a hard framework. Whether or one might categorize hearing impairment as a disability depends largely on the circumstances of the person making a claim. Influencing factors may include: 

  • Whether or not the hearing loss was the direct result of a workplace injury.
  • The degree to which the hearing loss impairs the individual's daily life.
  • The degree to which the hearing loss impairs the individual's career. 
  • The degree to which peripherals such as hearing aids or cochlear implants mitigate the condition. 

Eligibility for protections and benefits varies not just by country, but by state/province. In Canada, for instance, qualification for the disability tax credit requires that an individual is unable to understand spoken conversation in a private setting at least 90% of the time. There are also various qualifications for provincial disability benefits. 

Disability protection laws are also outlined explicitly in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Human Rights Act.

In the United States, hearing impairment and what are considered as legally deaf is typically defined at the state level.

What all this means is that you could be considered to have disabling hearing loss when standing on the sidewalk, but not when you're within the benefits office.

With that said, most places consider hearing loss to be disabled around the 70 dB threshold. Educational institutions further tend to categorize any level of hearing loss as disabled if it's determined that it impedes the learning process.

Is My Hearing Loss a Disability?

When in doubt, trust in the data. Visit your audiologist for a hearing test, and they can help you determine both the severity of your hearing loss and next steps for treatment. And if you're not fond of terms like 'disabling hearing loss' or hearing impairment, that's okay — you don't have to use them.

Beyond that, we'd advise at least familiarizing yourself with the law in your area. The more you know about how hearing loss is categorized and defined, the better prepared you'll be if you have to fight for benefits or accessibility. You can also find helpful hearing loss information from blogs about a multitude of different topics.