What Percentage of Hearing Loss Is Legally Deaf?

Published August 22nd, 2022 by Bridget Reed
Fact Checked by
Camille Freking
Medically Reviewed:
Chris Riley

If you have experienced hearing loss, you might wonder if your hearing loss level meets the requirements of being considered deaf.

The answer isn’t incredibly cut and dry. 

In other words, there are a few ways that hearing loss is categorized, and determining whether or not you are legally deaf depends on who (or what agency) you’re asking. 

Together, we’ll discuss the different levels of hearing loss and determine what makes a person legally deaf. 

Categories of Hearing Loss

Hearing loss measurement uses decibels.

In other words, if you have lost the ability to hear sounds at certain decibels, you are said to have a hearing impairment. 

Mild Hearing Loss

Someone with mild hearing loss has lost the ability to hear sounds below 26 to 40 decibels.

These sounds include high-frequency sounds, birds chirping, the sound of an electronic appliance humming, or difficulty hearing conversation in a crowd. 

Moderate Hearing Loss

Losing your ability to hear sounds below 41 to 55 decibels qualifies moderate hearing loss.

This level of hearing loss makes it harder for people to hear certain consonants when someone is speaking. It also becomes more difficult to hear a conversation over background noise.

Moderate-Severe Hearing Loss

You may have moderate to severe hearing loss if you have trouble hearing normal conversation in a quiet room.

This hearing loss is the loss of hearing sounds that register below 56 to 70 decibels. 

At this level of hearing loss, your healthcare provider may suggest hearing aids or other devices to help you maintain your quality of life and stay in the conversation. 

Severe Hearing Loss

Hearing loss in this range means you’ve lost the ability to hear sounds under 71 to 90 decibels.

This changes your method of communication and requires assistive listening devices, hearing aids, or other methods of auxiliary communication. 

Profound Hearing Loss

When you can no longer hear sounds that register below 91 decibels, you have total or nearly total hearing loss.

With this type of hearing loss, communication is impossible without auxiliary methods. 

Hearing aids may not be an option. Someone who has profound hearing loss may generally be considered deaf.

Who Defines Deafness?

While the general public may define a person with profound hearing loss as deaf, government agencies and medical professionals may use different scales. 

Legal Definitions

Legally, the state decides the definition of whether a person is deaf.

The United States Code defines deafness as someone with any type of hearing impairment, including those who are hard of hearing or who develop hearing impairments later in life. 

Many states define someone as deaf if they’ve lost the ability to hear sounds below 70 decibels, which would place them in the moderate to severe hearing loss category.

If you cannot hear below 50 decibels using hearing aids, you may also be categorized as legally deaf. 

Legal definitions exist to help you get aid when you need it.

In other words, if you lose your hearing and can no longer do your job, this would help you obtain disability benefits. 

Medical Definitions

Defining deafness in medical terms focuses on the structures and functions of your ears and how they operate.

For instance, the medical community may say you are hard of hearing if you have a deformity in your ears that prevents you from hearing.

Being medically classified as deaf doesn’t mean you’ll automatically qualify for disability benefits.

These definitions usually exist to help your healthcare provider diagnose your level of hearing loss and provide you with a treatment option appropriate for your level of loss. 

Agencies That Define Deafness

Different governmental agencies and even legislation define whether or not a hearing impairment makes you “legally deaf” or not.

These definitions help people with hearing impairments get the help they need to communicate equally with people who do not have hearing impairments. 

Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans With Disabilities Act was passed in 2010.

According to the Act, you are hearing impaired if you have any level of hearing loss that interferes with your ability to participate in work, recreation, or other life events. 

You are entitled to certain rights to auxiliary communication devices and methods that help you maintain your quality of life like someone without a disability. 

Social Security Administration (SSA)

The Social Security Administration is responsible for vetting a candidate for disability benefits.

As such, they require certain medical diagnoses to be reached before they will qualify a person with hearing impairment for benefits. 

A person who has lost the ability to hear sound under 90 decibels is likely a candidate for benefits under the SSA’s definitions of deafness. Additionally, the SSA may require testing from your audiologist that involves repeating spoken words. 

If you fail to repeat a significant portion of the words, you may qualify for benefits under their definition of deafness. 

Life With Hearing Loss

If you’ve lost some or all of your hearing, your quality of life may suffer without treatment.

People who are hard of hearing and do not use aids or auxiliary forms of communication may miss out on social events, become unable to have meaningful conversations, and even become depressed. 

Thankfully, there are numerous treatments for people who have hearing loss in all categories. 

Hearing Aids

Hearing aids use a microphone, amplifier, and speaker to amplify sound, transform it into electrical signals, and send it to the cochlear.

Modern types of hearing aids are sleek, barely noticeable, and can dramatically improve your lifestyle. 

Cochlear Implants

One fascinating development for people with profound hearing loss is the development of cochlear implants.

A cochlear implant may be surgically implanted to facilitate hearing if a person has hearing loss due to an abnormality in the outer, middle, or inner ear. 

Cochlear implants bypass the damaged portions of the ear and deliver electrical signals directly to the auditory nerve, allowing the person to hear sound. 

Assisted Listening Devices

Devices like teletypewriters (TTYs), headphones that amplify sound, and inner-ear devices that help block out background noise and make it easier for someone to hear can be very useful for people with partial hearing loss and need assistance hearing over a crowd or discerning certain sounds and consonants. 

Protecting Your Hearing

Protecting your hearing is the best way to ensure you don’t lose your hearing as you age.

You can protect your hearing by avoiding situations with noise over 70 decibels (considered unsafe for normal hearing). 

If you are exposed to sounds this loud, wear hearing protection, like earplugs or over-the-ear, noise-canceling headphones.  

Some hearing loss is natural as you age, but you can protect your hearing and ensure you don’t lose it too soon by making smart decisions about the noises you experience. 

For more information on hearing loss and treatment options available, check out the USA Rx blog. You’ll find information on different types of hearing loss, available treatment options, and tips on maintaining auditory health.

References, Studies and Sources:

Understanding the different levels of hearing loss | Davidson Hearing Aids 

Definition: deaf from 20 USC § 4360(a)(2) | LII / Legal Information Institute | Law Cornell 

ADA.gov