11 January 2012

Communicating with a Deaf Person: 5 Easy Tips

A lot of people have asked me how best to "talk to a deaf person."  My response is usually something like "the same as you'd talk to anyone else" which is basically still my answer, but the following are some pointers for those of you who're keen on upping your game:

1. Relax. They're (probably) not going to bite you.  Consider how you would communicate with a person who only spoke, say, Azerbaijani.  The person is not incompetent, he just speaks a different language.  That being said, you do need to overcome the language barrier. You might use gestures, facial expressions or pictures to get your meaning across. You would not yell at him in an attempt to get him to understand, because louder English does not equal Azerbaijani.  Both of these concepts apply to communicating with a deaf person.
2. Respect the Differences. Remember that all deaf people are different.  While ASL is the primary language of the Deaf community, not all deaf people identify with Deaf culture and may have other means of communicating.  Ask the person what method of communication he or she prefers before making assumptions about signing or lipreading skills.  
Regarding differences between d/Deaf and hearing people here are the answers to some odd questions I've been asked over the years: Yes, deaf people are allowed to drive. Yes, my ears do still get cold in the winter.  No, deaf people cannot read braille.  Deaf people read...words, with their eyes.  Unless they are blind, or have otherwise learned braille for some reason unrelated to their deafness.
3. The Lipreading Game: Speech-reading, or reading lips, is a difficult skill involving a lot of guesswork.  For example, English-language throat sounds like "g" and and "k" are completely invisible on the lips. Even visible sounds can still be still hard to distinguish-- plosive sounds like "p" and "b" look nearly the same.  If the person is comfortable communicating through lipreading, talk clearly, but normally.  Exaggerating your mouth movements will not necessarily help with lipreading, but it will definitely make you look like an idiot.
4. Write it Down.  One advantage you have communicating with a deaf person over a foreign person is that you can both write English. So find a piece of scrap paper and get down to business!
5. Learn Sign Language! Okay, so this one doesn't happen overnight.  American Sign Language is its own language separate from English, and can be difficult to learn just as any other spoken/written language would be.  If the person with whom you're communicating does use ASL, putting in an effort to learn shows that you're interested and willing to communicate in a language that both of you can understand.  Even learning the basics, like the alphabet and numbers, will help. (Though keep in mind that spelling out every word manually will be painful for both you and the person watching.) 

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