I read a few tweets a while back about less than positive interactions between deaf of hard of hearing people and hearing people.
The common trend is that the hearing person in question either walks away because they can’t be bothered, are scared, or they stand still and ignore the deaf individual.
You’d think that it can’t get worse or more ridiculous than that, but it can. One example is a customer physically assaulting a Deaf employee because she was frustrated that he hadn’t heard her question.
Another is an employee threatening to call the police if the deaf customer didn’t leave the drive-thru because “it’s against the company policy” (but it wasn’t, so he was fired).
I know, it’s mind-boggling but it really does happen, and it became of a running joke at times within the Deaf community…
When a Hearing person meets a Deaf person for a first time. pic.twitter.com/ADlAcuCVlV— Jake Grafman (@GrafmanJake) June 25, 2019
…but it has made me wonder how often does this happen without hearing people realising what they are doing.
So let me help you out and give you some very basic tips on how to interact with a deaf person.
How to communicate with deaf people:
- Always face the deaf person you are speaking to
- Speak in well-lit areas to enable easier lipreading
- Speak in quieter environments
- Use video calls instead of voice calls
- Don’t exaggerate your speech & your lips movements
- Speak clearly, slowly and don’t mumble
- Keep your lips clear
- Don’t stand too close and respect personal space
- Repeat and/or rephrase if you have to
- Never say “don’t worry about it” or “it doesn’t matter”
- Be patient
- Don’t shout!
- Write it down or use your phone to type it out
- Learn some basic sign language
1. Always face the deaf person you are speaking to
You might think facing each other is because it makes it easier to lipread, which is true.
But there’s more to it than that, as there are other non-verbal clues that can help us along the way, such as your body language, watching your hand gestures, reading your facial expressions and get a grasp of your emotions.
Dear hearing non-signing people. If you approach us to ask something (eg. directions) and find out we are deaf, don’t just turn away saying you are sorry. Go the extra mile: type on your phone, write on paper, gesture. We’ll accommodate. Thank you, a fellow deaf city dweller. pic.twitter.com/hIw7iC4KHF— Maartje De Meulder (@mdemeulder) May 21, 2019
One of the best thing about being deaf and communicating with another deaf individual is that the body language is more positive. It’s possible to communicate using spoken languages, but have your back facing to the other person.
But because we face each other when talking, we can use other clues on top of listening as much as we can to help piece the puzzle together to get as much information as possible.
It won’t necessarily be 100% perfect (it never will be), but it takes us closer to it, particularly if you also take into other tips below.
2. Speak in well-lit areas to enable easier lip reading
Lip reading is a big part of understanding what is said for deaf and hard of hearing people. But the only way that can work is:
- you are facing each other face-to-face as mentioned above
- the area you’re in is not dark
Being in public spaces with dark lighting is a huge turn-off. Some bar owners, restaurant owners and the likes may think that it sets the mood, but frankly, it makes thing very difficult for anyone who needs to lipread.
And lack of communication and buzz in a dark room is not necessarily a good mood to create, so I’m pretty sure we can all survive without darkened rooms.
Regardless of this, lip reading does not make things immediately better. It’s part of many other clues that allows deaf people to understand what you are saying.
The video below is fantastic on understanding what is it like to read lips:
3. Speak in quieter environments
On top of having well-lit areas, the other dilemma is having a quiet place to speak so that background noise is not drowning out what you’re saying.
It is incredibly difficult and perhaps impossible for many individuals to hear you above the background noise.
This could vary in scenarios such as:
- music played in the background
- general hubbub as a result of large number of people talking in a small room
- travelling in an airplane
- being in a car
- coffee machines grinding constantly in a cafe
So if you can combine any of the above, like loud music in a busy bar, it is nigh on impossible for (at least, for me) to be able to communicate.
It’s one of the top reasons why I don’t attend certain events, like conference after-parties. In my experience, there is never an ideal place to be able to communicate with anyone.
Some premises will have quiet rooms or even outdoor areas (weather permitting, which is tricky when you live in Scotland), that make it easier. But that’s not always possible.
Other venues try their best to “muffle” the sounds and reduce echoes by getting professionals to help make the room more acoustic. A basic solution is by using various equipment such as acoustic wall and ceiling panels.
So if I request to meet somewhere else, or I don’t turn up at an event, or I decided to leave an event, there is a good chance that it’s possible of the expected challenges of communicating in loud environments.
4. Use video calls instead of voice calls
Technology can be useful in many circumstances. We are seeing more and more innovative solutions for our everyday lives. But one technology that is perhaps “simple” because it’s common and used every day is video call.
I previously talked about the importance of facing each other when having a conversation. The same is true for phone calls. Video calls work far better for deaf people than voice calls.
Now, we are spoilt for choice as to which tool we use: Face Time, WhatsApp Video, iChat, Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts, Appear.in, Viber, Tango…there are so many free options that you can use on any mobile and desktop device.
This also applies for those who enjoy leaving voice notes. Consider doing a video note instead, which is possible on most smartphones.
And it is even more useful for those who speak sign languages, as they can communicate with ease via video calls.
Don’t forget that the same communication tips mentioned applies when making video calls e.g. quiet environment, well-lit areas, etc.
Oh, and good internet connection is important too.
5. Don’t exaggerate your speech & your lip movements
You’ve learnt that being face-to-face is important and one reason is because of lip reading. Well, you can still speak naturally without exaggerating how you say it.
Some people assume that you need to really exaggerate how your lips move and saaaaaay sooooommmmthinnnnnng sllooooooooowly.
Maybe there is an emphasis on speaking slowly and clearly, which I will touch upon in the next point.
But apart from that, you can speak naturally. Exaggerating your speech can be annoying and/or demeaning for the other person.
6. Speak clearly, slowly and don’t mumble
In my experience, it’s common to see someone starting off speaking clearly but then getting comfortable and falling back into their normal habits, e.g. (as well as not following the other tips I’m covering here).
We all do that. I do that.
There is a good chance that this will happen to you at least once when communicating with a deaf individual.
If it does, don’t fret.
If we have to point it out to you because you forgot, again, don’t worry about it. Just get back into the zone and you’ll be fine.
7. Keep your mouth and lips clear
I’ve had previous experience of speaking to people who have impressive beards. The only problem is that it almost entirely covers their lips.
Which means lip reading is impossible (unless I place my hands on their lips, brush aside the beard and just look at the lips that way. It may not go down well with him though).
I couldn’t possibly ask that person to shave his beard off. Maybe just a little around the lips?
Also, please don’t talk with your mouth full of food.
Not only it’s not nice and you won’t speak clearly, but I’d rather not look at mushed up food in your mouth whilst I try to lipread you.
8. Don’t stand too close and respect personal space
You may think that you need to be extra close for you to be heard, but that is not necessarily the case.
If anything, it can make things very uncomfortable.
Apart from romantic moments or when you are doing a face-off before a boxing/wrestling event, I can’t think of any other situation where you need to be up close, (but correct me if I’m wrong by leaving a comment at the end of this post).
We all require personal space between two people. The same applies if you are communicating with a deaf individual.
9. Repeat and/or rephrase if you have to
A personal “favourite” of mine is when I ask some to repeat, just because I didn’t hear or misheard something.
I can pretty much guarantee that this will happen to you too.
I’ve rarely had to ask someone to rephrase but there have been times where I have asked someone to repeat but also to elaborate more on what they’ve said. That could fall under the category of rephrase.
The number of times I’ve had to ask my poor wife to repeat what she has said…
10. Never say “don’t worry about it” or “it doesn’t matter”
Amongst the worst things you can say if someone didn’t hear you and asks you to repeat what you said is to say anything along the lines of:
- “Don’t worry about it”
- “It doesn’t matter”
- “I’ll tell you about it later” (and then you don’t)
- “I’ll tell you the short version”.
I’ve heard it all before.
It is seen as something that is very disrespectful as you are implying that it’s not important for the deaf person to know, so you just wave it off.
11. Be patient!
Long story short, don’t get angry, frustrated or annoyed if you can’t get your message across.
If anything, we are more frustrated than you because of the challenges that many deaf face in what is really a hearing world.
We make it work. Just be patient!
12. Don’t shout!
There is a perception for some people is that being louder will help to get the message across. But my message to you is this: louder is not better.
There are times when raised volume makes sense. But other times, it doesn’t because it’s more about the clarity of what is said rather than how loud is it.
If it was as simple as being louder, instead of using subtitles, I would just raise the volume of the TV to hear better. I can raise the volume as much as I want but it doesn’t mean that I will hear it better. Eventually, it will actually sound distorted.
It’s just like when you are on holiday in another country where you don’t know the local language. For some reason, many people think that raising your voice (as well as exagerrating your lips movements) is going to make the locals understand you better.
I wonder how well this works out? In reality in these situations, tourists need to try other methods to be understood (notice some of the similarity in communication skills with those who are deaf people and those who don’t speak your language).
So avoid shouting because you are wasting your time and it’s patronising.
13. Write it down or use your phone to type it out
Let’s go back to being old school and carry about a pen and journal to write your messages there. Or grab a tissue if you need to write it down quickly.
Ok, maybe we don’t all carry pen and paper around, but I’m sure you’ve got a phone in your pocket. So open up a blank text message, notepad, Evernote or whatever you want to use and type it out.
You might think that it will take a long time for you to get your point across by typing it out on your phone, especially if it’s going to be a conversation.
But look at from this perspective: how often do you send messages to your friends and have conversations that way?
If you can do it this way, I’m sure you’ll cope fine face-to-face, especially if you combine with other tips mentioned on this post.
14. Learn some basic sign language
If you really want to make a huge impact, learning sign language can definitely break the ice and start the communication process. Even if you know the basics, that can help.
If you want to move up the ladder and learn more than the basics, that is also a very admirable thing to do.
As I go on my quest to learn British Sign Language, I have found myself enjoying the process and enjoying being able to communicate with those who predominantly speak in sign lanuage.
An important point to make is to never assume that all deaf people know sign languages.
I personally have encountered many people who are deaf or hard of hearing but don’t know any sign languages, apart from the absolute basic. They have their own reasons, such as they are able to hear enough to get by with the help of all the points I’ve mentioned above.
There are many benefits to learning sign languages, I would encourage you to give it a go
Examples of when communication “attempts” have failed with me
I don’t know where to start with this as I’ve got a lot of stories. So I’ll just highlight a few below:
- Too many times when I’ve misheard someone or didn’t hear them, and I asked them to repeat, they utter the phrase “ah, it doesn’t matter” and just wave it off
- On several occasions, I have asked a group to repeat what they said after something funny was said. They then said “it’s nothing, really”, which was definitely not true
- Many people assume that I can hear fine because I can generally hear OK on most occasions so I should be “fine”. So they don’t feel like they need to adjust in any environments e.g. at a nightclub, in a noisy restaurant, whilst travelling on public transport
- When talking on the phone and making a point about being a deaf, the operator on the end didn’t bother to attempt to slow things down or speak clearer
- A group of friends decided to get together at bar, which is a very popular bar, held on a busy night, with low ceilings (which means more sounds contained) and with at least 8 of us at a long table. It was obvious that I was not going to cope so I declined to attend.
- As a child, at Santa’s grotto in a local shopping mall, he said, “wld you lke the tmmb rddr gmmm?”. Ok, he didn’t exactly say that, but that’s what I heard amidst all the fake white cloud that covers his mouth and leaving me struggling. Naturally, I just nodded my head. Little did I know, until it was pointed out by my family later on, that I apparently “would like the Tomb Traider game”. Only, I didn’t (no offence Lara Croft). I wanted the new FIFA game instead.
It’s not hard for you to imagine what it would feel like to be ignored or ridiculed.
But for some bizarre reason, this happens quite frequently in society.
Maybe it’s because you don’t know what to do. Or you are afraid of making a mistake. Or you are afraid of insulting the person.
Whatever it is, you can make it work. Just relax and follow the tips which, in my opinion, is quite simple to follow.
Don’t forget that everyone is different. Some can hear better than others. Some prefer one method over another. Some may suggest another alternatives to you.
Whatever it is, follow the tips and go with the flow.
Be aware that it is still expected for most, if not all, deaf people to suffer from concentration fatigue. Communicating still requires a lot of cognitive energy, which can eventually wears you out.
And that’s something that I get very frequently.
But the more you follow the tips mentioned in this post, the less likely that it will happen and the more likely you will have a great conversation with any deaf or hard of hearing person.
And hopefully, it will reduce the number of times hearing people are in shock, runs away or gets frustarted when interacting with deaf people.
Have you had any methods which worked well for you, whether it’s something from this post or you have thought of your own?
Let me know in the comment below.
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