When you don’t know how to connect with a deaf or hard-of-hearing person, you can complicate the process — or worse, shut them out entirely. If you need to communicate with a deaf person, here’s what you should do.
Politely Get Their Attention
With a hearing person, you can call their name or shout something like “Hey!” But that obviously won’t work with someone who can’t hear you. They need to see you.
According to the Deaf-Hearing Communication Centre (DHCC), you have a few basic options for getting their attention that aren’t considered rude:
- Move into the person’s visual field
- Gently tap on the person’s shoulder
- Flick lights at slow/medium pace (doing so at fast pace may indicate an emergency)
If you can, always go with the first option. That way you can look them in the eye — eye contact is super important — and signal your interest in saying something. Eye contact also ensures that you have their attention. Never wave your hand in front of their face! The DHCC also suggests you ask the individual if there are other methods of obtaining attention that he/she prefers, especially if you’ll be interacting with them regularly.
You also need to time your signalling just right. If it looks like they’re actively doing something, don’t interrupt (that’s rude anyway). And when you do begin to talk, always ask if you are interrupting something — just in case. Remember, deaf people can be distracted by things just like anyone else, so don’t assume they’re ready to watch you just because you’ve indicated that to them.
Let Them Take the Lead
Once you’ve got their attention, hand over the reins. As YouTube channel ASL Stew explains in the video above, not all deaf or hard of hearing people can read lips, so it’s vital you let them decide how best to communicate with you. And they will be on top of it. Remember, this might be your first time interacting with a deaf person, but they interact with hearing people every single day.
If possible, be prepared for different methods of communication. If you have a deaf coworker, for example, always have a pen and pad of paper at hand. Have it out on your desk and take it with you when you go to talk with them. Also, be aware of excess background noise, and try to remove it if possible, especially if they’re just hard of hearing.
Stay Visible and Speak Normally
The deaf person may be able to read lips. If so, it’s important you stay visible so they can see your lips move when you talk. Kimberly Brown at The Limping Chicken suggests you position yourself in good lighting (no sun or bright lights behind you), stand close enough they can see your lips (but not so close you’re invading their space), and make sure they have their glasses on or contacts in.
When you start speaking, don’t over enunciate or mumble. Both make it harder for someone to lip read! Speak somewhat slowly (especially if you’re a fast talker), and always be facing them when you talk and continue to make eye contact. Keep your hands, food, and drinks away from your mouth while you speak, and never talk while chewing food or gum. And don’t assume they understand everything you say just because they’re paying attention. Deaf people get distracted too! So be ready to repeat something you’ve already said. That does not mean dumbing down what you said or yelling at them loudly, however. Just repeat what you said the same way. Give them time to process what you’re saying, and occasionally stop to check if they’re comprehending everything.
No matter how you end up communicating, though, be patient. This process can be difficult for both of you, so give it some time and don’t get angry. Brown says you should never give up out of frustration and blow it off. It’s rude, disrespectful, and it will definitely make them feel unimportant or left out.
Use Simple Gestures and Body Language
When speaking, a few visual cues can help you get your point across. ASL Stew says it’s a lot like a game of charades, so you should be prepared to act things out a little.
However, Brown recommends you try to keep relatively still while you talk if possible, otherwise lip reading can be a lot harder. Always stay facing them, maintaining eye contact, and keep your mouth visible. Also, they might get distracted by your actions if you’re acting like a weirdo, so don’t go overboard with your performance.
Learn Some Basic Signs for Next Time
You may not interact with the hearing impaired on a daily basis, but it can still benefit you to know some of the most basic American Sign Language signs. In this video, youtuber Ashley Clark Fry shows off 25 essential ASL signs anyone can learn. Phrases like “Hello,” “Yes,” “No,” and “Are you deaf?” are good to know.
Bonus: Don’t Ask Them These Annoying Questions
When you do communicate with a deaf or hard-of-hearing person, keep the personal questions to a minimum. That goes double if you’re thinking about asking any of the questions in the above video from WatchCut Video. Keep it classy, people.