Out of curiosity, I once googled “how to communicate with a deaf person.” I read the lists, all written by hearing people. Some of the suggestions were accurate, others made me shake my head in despair or giggle with amusement.
A majority group speaking for a minority simply doesn’t cut it, so I decided to make my own list. However, we deaf people are not all the same, so I’m writing here what works for me. You have a responsibility to find out what works for your deaf friends.
Here are some ways to make communication with me easier.
Get my attention before you talk to me. If you start talking before I give you my attention, I might miss the first half of the sentence and you will have to start over.
Getting my attention is often as simple as calling my name, and waiting for me to respond. An enormous amount of speech processing takes place in my mind with every communication, so it might take me a second or two to realize you are calling me.
A light touch on my shoulder or arm also works and feels respectful to me. I will almost certainly be aware of your presence before you start talking, so a touch will not startle me.
Do not use crude methods like tossing objects at me or flicking a light switch to get my attention. That feels dehumanizing and I hate it. I will probably ignore you on purpose if you do that to me.
When communicating with me, slowing down is more important than speaking up. I’m a good lipreader, so if I am not understanding, slow down. You don’t necessarily have to speak louder.
Ifyoutalkreallyfastthereisnotimetodecipheryourgibberish, but YELLING IS EVEN WORSE. NOBODY LIKES TO BE YELLED AT AND CERTAINLY NOT ME. DO YOU WANT ME TO SCREAM BACK AT YOU?
Of course a mumbler may need to speak up, but yelling is not okay unless I’m really in danger.
If I am having trouble deciphering your words, try to say it another way. Some sounds look identical on the lips and can be confusing. Rather than repeating the same thing twenty times, try a different way of saying it after a few repeats. In a very noisy setting, pull out a paper and pen and write it down.
Remember that I “hear” with my eyes. Yes, I can hear with my ears, too, especially in a quiet environment. But in general, make sure that I can see what is going on. Sit across from me instead of beside me at a dinner party, and keep your hands away from your face while talking.
When giving a public speech, use visuals whenever possible. If you want me to really love you, be nice like some of my Bible School teachers were and give me a printout of the visuals. I find it hard to take notes and listen at the same time, because I don’t have more than one set of eyes. Remember, though, even if you use PowerPoint or something similar, you need to stay in the same field of vision. Supplementary visuals don’t do much good if you are standing in the back of the room.
Be kind. Not much misses my attention. I have spent my whole lifetime reading faces, and if you feel contempt toward me, I know it.
Many times others assume that my struggle to hear means that I am stupid. When I’m treated like I’m stupid, I start feeling that way deep inside. Feeling stupid because of my handicap is very wounding.
Be an advocate. I get so tired of trying to make life work. Lots of practice has helped me get better at it, but advocating for myself is still not natural for me. It is hard and exhausting. If you quietly help me get what I need from time to time, I will be deeply grateful.
Ask me questions about my deafness, but don’t let that be the sole basis of our friendship. I’m an oddity, and people are fascinated by anything out of the ordinary. It’s okay to ask me clarifying questions, but don’t let it stop there or I will feel like a museum artifact rather than a friend.
Talking about my deafness feels a little awkward for me, but I would rather you ask me questions than wrongly speculate or ignore me.
Remember that deaf people have something to offer the world, too. A deficit in one sense means that other senses are sharper, and I see things about the world that others don’t. A long history of emotional pain makes me empathetic. When you talk to me you will have my undivided attention, both out of necessity and out of my sincere desire to listen to you.
Please don’t assume that I have nothing to give. Try to get to know me, and you will find me to be a loyal and perceptive friend.