So, during your daily peregrination through life’s mundane drudgery you’ve managed to stumble upon that rarest o’ breeds: a deaf person. Yes, we do exist in the wild—we are not merely urban legends or the figments of some weird and uncanny acid trip. Deaf folks are real, and there’s no need to fear us. So, come out from behind that rock (there’s no hiding from deaf folks—we see you), screw up your courage and take the boldest leap imaginable: communicate with us. It’s not that difficult, and we don’t bite (hard), and who knows, perhaps you’ll come to understand that, hey, we’re humans, too, with unique stories to tell just waiting for a willing ear. All you need is a little patience (a little pizza helps, too) and you may come away from the experience with not only new enlightenment but also a new friend.
But first, a primer. Communicating with deaf and hard-of-hearing people can be challenging for the uninitiated and faint of heart. But fear not, friend—there are tools in the deaf communications tool kit that can help smooth the bumps and assuage the worries you may have when attempting to talk to a deaf person. So, follow along, don’t get lost, take copious notes and use a #2 pencil. Let’s go!
We’re Human Just Like You
Deaf and hard-of-hearing folks may have difficulty understanding speech, but we’re still human, not unlike hearing folks. We want to be treated with the same respect and dignity you show your hearing pals. Don’t talk down to us. Don’t assume we’re mentally challenged just because we have hearing loss and a resulting communication problem. Work with us, be kind and patient. Hearing loss really has no bearing on intelligence. Deaf people must learn things differently than hearing people sometimes, but that difference doesn’t lessen us as humans. Differences and diversity are to be celebrated, not scorned. You’d be surprised just how intelligent deaf folks can be if you give us a chance. When you see us as humans—as equals—you’ve taken your first step to learning how to communicate with us. So, congratulations, and a gold star for you! But don’t get cocky—there’s still much to learn.
Many hearing people are unsure how to speak to deaf people. Do you shout? Do you jump up and down like some kind of maniac? Do you use fireworks and exotic spices? Pulleys and cogs? Diagrams and pie charts? No, no, no, maybe, and no. The worst thing a hearing person can do is alter the natural way he or she speaks. It really throws us off when you speak too slowly or too loudly or in a disjointed manner. Speech relies on a smooth delivery and a flow of words and ideas. Trying to lip-read a hearing person who is herking and jerking his words can be next to impossible. Lip-reading is exhausting, and the best lip-readers are successful in guessing only about 30% of the time. Shouting or speaking too slowly or in bursts makes our job even more difficult. If we can’t understand something you’ve said, we’ll let you know. Just speak normally, perhaps with a bit of raised volume if necessary, depending on how much difficulty we’re having understanding you. And remember: we’re trying our hardest to keep up with you, so try your best to accommodate us if we ask you to repeat or write down what you’re saying if we get stuck. Lip-reading—at least for me—can be like a train wreck when something goes wrong. My brain will get hung up on one particular word or sound I can’t understand, and everything else after than is just…gone. Train derailed. So, speaking smoothly and naturally can help alleviate this.
Look At Us (No, Really, It’s Sort Of A Requirement)
It goes without saying that lip-reading requires collecting all possible clues and bits of information, both aural and visual. That means we need to see your mug in its full, frightening glory. This may be off-putting for some folks, those among you who are shy or reserved or who fear eye contact. But alas, deaf folks need all the info we can get to try to guess what you’re saying, and that means as much face-time as possible.
Lip-reading isn’t just reading lips. It’s much more complicated than that. Words can be complex things, and the way a mouth forms a sound can vary greatly. Where is the tongue? In the front of the mouth? Back of the teeth? Roof of the mouth? How are the lips shaped? So many words sound exactly alike if you can’t hear all the consonants. Consonants really define words since there are so few vowel sounds. For me, I hear very few consonant sounds, mainly just the sibilant sounds such as the hiss of the letter S. I can’t discriminate most other consonants, so all I can hear are some of the vowels, which really makes it difficult to understand anything anyone is saying. Having a good view of a person’s face allows us to see the mouth more clearly, which helps us try to guess what’s being said.
Then there are the eyes. The ol’ windows o’ the soul. The gatekeepers of dreams. The last bastion before the blasted lands. Or something. Anyway, the eyes are incredibly important in lip-reading because they provide so much context. And not just the eyes, but the eye brows, too, so folks, please refrain from shaving off your eye brows if you ever plan on conversing with a deaf person. You’ll thank me later. Lip-reading by itself provides no context. It’s just sounds emitting from your pie hole. We must rely on your eyes, eye brows and facial expressions to determine context. Imagine saying the same sentence over and over, only changing your facial expression each time. That same sentence would have a different meaning with each utterance. For those who know and use sign language, facial expressions (along with body language) are exaggerated to convey context to prevent misunderstandings. So much is lost when one must rely on lip-reading. Humor, sarcasm, irony and so many other aspects of communication are absent without enough context to clue us in on the intent of a statement. Making sure we can view your face clearly allows us to gather as much intel as possible so we can make an educated guess as to what you’re saying.
Strike A Pose
Body language helps us understand context, too. With the limited info we have when we must rely on lip-reading, body language can fill in many of the blanks. Even if you don’t know sign language, you can still use your hands imaginatively to help get your point across to us. How’s your posture? Ram-rod straight? Slumped like Quasimodo? Open and expressive? Closed off? Demonstrative? Frozen? It helps a lot if you use your entire physical being to communicate. Lip-reading is a real-time event, relying on a steady stream of visual and aural clues being processed as you speak to us, and it is difficult and faulty and tiring and unreliable at best. So, rather than standing there like some strange, cryptic totem, why not get animated and use all of your tools to express yourself? You’ve got more than just one paint brush and you’ve got a palette of several colors, so use all of them to paint your sentences. The more info we have, the more we may understand.
Flex Your Vocabulary
Lip-reading success hinges on how much information we have to work with, so more complex words can sometimes be easier to understand. Single-syllable words are just evil, let me tell you. So many of them sound alike, and they’re elusive and quite naughty and rather ill-tempered and simply don’t like to cooperate.
When speaking to a deaf person, you may need to change your words in order to give more information. Instead of saying “dude,” you could say “individual” or “gentleman” or even “ne’er-do-well.” We may get hung up on that single-syllable word like a burr clover on a sock (I mean, how many words rhyme with “dude?”), but altering your word choice can possibly help us understand what you mean.
A bane of all deaf and hard-of-hearing people is the word discrimination test, wherein we must repeat words without any visual clues (no lip-reading). The more syllables, the more info we have and the better the chance we might guess correctly. “Use different words” was a common refrain of mine when communicating with my mom years ago. Let this be your mantra, Dear Hearing Person, when speaking to deaf folks. After all, what’s good for the goose is good for the aquatic waterfowl.
Be A Hero—Write It Down
Sometimes deaf folks simply can’t understand what’s being said, no matter how many times it’s repeated. I assure you, it’s quite embarrassing to ask someone to repeat himself over and over again. It’s even worse when we still can’t understand and must take the dreaded step of Asking You To Write It Down. This is a bit of a last resort for lip-readers, a sort of surrender, if you will, and it’s embarrassing. It slows down a conversation and inconveniences the speaker, and let me tell you, not every hearing person is keen on writing things down for a deaf person to read.
Plenty of times in my life I’ve come across folks who flat-out refused to write something out for me in order for me to understand. I could never fathom this belligerent attitude. If a blind person is standing on a street corner, waiting to cross the intersection, and asks a seeing person for help, would that seeing person refuse? Likely not. So why is there so much resistance from hearing people when it comes to writing things out for deaf people?
My own parents belonged to this odd, rude group of people who apparently didn’t have the time or the inclination to write stuff down for their own deaf son to read. I can’t explain it. It’s lost on me why people would become upset and refuse such a kindness to help a deaf person understand.
I once ran into a woman at the local Social Services office who became almost livid when I asked if she could please write down what she was saying because after several repeats I still couldn’t understand her. She glared at me, stormed off to her office, scribbled down the info and shoved the paper at me, then retreated. I was both shocked (how rude!) and amused (how bizarre!) by her behavior and thought she should probably not be working in Social Services if she has such disdain for disabled people.
So, hearing folks, I beseech you: if you can, if you have time, write or type what you’re saying. It eliminates confusion and shows compassion on your part for a fellow human who needs a bit of help. I am currently blessed to have a sister who tirelessly writes everything down, a counselor who types everything for me so I can fully understand her, and assorted medical personnel who do the same, willingly and graciously. Heroes, all.
Psst! Don’t Whisper!
My mom had a quirk. She whispered to me all the time. Why, you may ask? Well, I dunno. I asked her the same thing hundreds of times and she never had an answer. She obviously knew I was deaf—she’d witnessed my descent into deafness firsthand—yet for some obscure and inexplicable reason, she continued to whisper to me to the end of her days.
As a deaf guy who has never come to terms with deafness—indeed, who has railed against it for decades to no avail—I never liked being reminded of my deafness. Yet every time my mom spoke to me in a whisper, it served to remind me of all I’d lost. And it bothered me. Time after time I’d have to explain that I was hard-of-hearing and that I couldn’t understand her when she whispered, and I had to do this daily time and again. I don’t know why she did this. Was she afraid my dad would hear her talking to me? Was she in denial about my deafness? Did she simply not care? Was she trolling me? I never got an answer.
She’s been gone for six years now and I still am flabbergasted that she whispered to me for years, knowing full well I couldn’t understand her, and she refused to change. Indeed, several times I told her she needed to change the way she spoke to me if she wanted to communicate with me. She would say, “Why should I have to change the way I talk just so you can understand me?” And I, totally mind-blown, would reply, “Because I can’t change the way I hear in order to understand you.” This scenario played out countless times over the years. Nothing changed, ever. She refused to write things down, she whispered constantly, she would get upset if I asked for help with a phone call, she would ignore all the basic, essential little things that hearing people must understand when talking with deaf people, and she never gave me an answer when I asked why. I’ll never know. Needless to say, don’t whisper to deaf people. We can’t hear you. You must alter the way you speak because we can’t alter the way we hear.
Miscellany (For You Random Folks)
What makes an easy-to-lip-read face? Aside from the proper number of eyeballs, noses and pie holes, it helps if a person is clean-shaven. Facial hair is not only distracting, it also sometimes covers the lips and mouth and makes it impossible to lip-read. I once met a fellow who had a full-fledged I-kid-you-not Grizzly Adams beard. It completely covered his mouth. Gone! Kaput! Pie hole in absentia! He also spoke extremely softly. I never understood a single word he said (and yes, coincidentally, his name was indeed Jeremiah, no kidding; bonus points for those who get the Three Dog Night reference). I always felt badly when he’d try speaking to me because I had absolutely no shot at all of understanding him. I couldn’t ask him to shave his beard, so there wasn’t much I could do. Neatly trimmed facial hair is easier on lip-readers, but again, it’s a situation where you’re trying to squeeze a square peg into a round hole. It’s not going to work.
Sunglasses? Cheap ones, like ZZ Top prefer? They make lip-reading more difficult, too. I’ve always had trouble understanding people who wore shades and I never could figure it out. It’s not like the glasses covered their mouths. It was more a distraction, particularly the mirror-lens sunglasses. Out of curiosity, I googled this years ago and was surprised to learn many deaf people have problems lip-reading those with sunglasses. I think it goes back to the idea of the eyes providing context and emotion, and hiding the eyes deprives lip-readers of a lot of information. I had a girlfriend once who wore shades frequently. I mentioned a few times that I had trouble lip-reading her when she wore them. Did she stop wearing them while taking to me? Nope. Did that relationship last? Nope. (There was more to it than just her shades, but that was a symptom of something deeper.) Any distraction can throw off a lip-reader and cause that aforementioned train derailment. So, if you wear shades and come across a deaf person, please consider removing them for at least the duration of the conversation. Little things can make a big difference.
Chewing gum and eating? Yeah, pretty much impossible to lip-read someone with a mouthful of cheeseburger or Bazooka bubble gum. Things like these are simply not thought about on a conscious level by hearing people accustomed to interacting with other hearing people. It’s another one of those inconveniences where the hearing person must change behaviors in order to accommodate a deaf person. Basic rule o’ thumb: any distraction will derail a conversation with a lip-reading deaf person. A wee bit o’ kindness can fix this dilemma and facilitate an enjoyable and meaningful conversation. So, swallow that cheeseburger or spit out that gum (or the other way around, who cares? Be creative!) and help us understand you.
Background noise can be impossible to deal with for lip-readers. It competes with the few aural clues we’re desperately trying to process during a conversation. So, turn the tv down (or off), stop popping that bubble wrap (party time can wait) and try to ensure a quiet environment for conversing.
One More…And It’s A Biggie
The worst thing you can say to a deaf person is “Never mind,” or “I’ll tell you later.” This is a dagger in a deaf person’s aorta, an ice pick in the kidney of a hard-of-hearing person, a phosphorus grenade in the…well, you get the idea. When a hearing person dismisses a deaf person in such a flip and cavalier manner, it invalidates his very existence. You’re saying, “You’re not important enough for me to deal with your deafness right now.” As a deaf person, it’s hard for me to put into words just how this really feels. Being deaf causes me to be left out of so much in life as it is. Being told I’m not worthy of being included, that my deafness is too big of a drag, what a bummer, dude, go be deaf somewhere else…what can you possibly say in response to that? Honestly, if you’re deaf and have people like that in your life, you need to do some serious reflection and soul-searching. There are kind, compassionate people out there who will accept you as you are and who will never invalidate your life experience. Seek out those good folks. Find comity among those with similar experiences. Not everyone is a boorish jerk.
There are plenty of other tips for dealing with deaf folks, but I’ve rambled on far too long already. Suffice to say, simply, just give us a chance. We’re humans, just like you. We’re unique and we each have a story to tell if you’re willing to listen and willing to accommodate our deafness. You might learn something invaluable, and you might forge a lasting friendship.