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Tips for Communicating with Deaf People

One common misconception held by hearing people is that when someone says “I’m Deaf,” they are essentially saying that they have no interest in talking to you. This could not be further from the truth. Still, far too often the hearing person operates under this assumption and in turn, misses out on an opportunity to learn more about Deaf people and the Deaf community.

Not only that, but when a misunderstanding like this takes place, even though it’s unintentional, it’s still disappointing to the individual Deaf person. No one wants to feel brushed off, ignored, or overlooked and of course most people don’t want to make other people feel those things.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way!

No matter your level of familiarity with Deaf people, you can relax and experience a wonderful conversation with a Deaf person by following these six practical tips.

  1. Look at the person. Eye contact is a huge part of the Deaf culture. When you engage in this way it accomplishes two things; it allows the Deaf person to read your gestures and so much of the spirit of the message is visible through the eyes. It assures them that you are engaged. Obviously both of these are incredibly important.
  2. If you know sign language, even just a little bit, don’t be afraid to use it. Lip-reading is not effective unless you are saying something very simple like, “How are you?” It’s very taxing on both the eyes and brain not to mention that it makes communication a burden – a burden that lands primarily on the Deaf person’s shoulders. If you are able to meet them halfway, do just that.
  3. When they ask you to repeat something, don’t say, “Nevermind.” If you wanted to tell them something and they missed it, try again. Use another tool like writing a note or saying it a different way. It’s worth the extra effort and it will make them feel valued.
  4. Don’t be surprised if they touch you. Touching is part of Deaf culture. It’s a powerful form of non-verbal communication and something that most Deaf people rely on to convey meaning, intention, etc. It’s also how Deaf people get someone’s attention. We might speak a person’s name, Deaf people will tap your shoulder.
  5. If you are in public, specifically in a noisy environment, don’t expect his/her hearing aids to work well. Keeping in mind that not all Deaf people wear hearing aids, however, if you have ever been to an event where someone uses a microphone and it’s impossible to understand him/her, you know what I’m talking about. Depending on how much hearing loss an individual has, that’s essentially what a Deaf person hears. Be patient and allow them to do whatever it is they need to do to maximize their hearing.
  6. When an interpreter is present, always talk directly to the Deaf individual and not the interpreter. The interpreter’s role is to allow communication to take place between the two parties, not to become part of the conversation.

The truth is that Deaf people communicate with hearing people on a daily basis, (most of the time without an interpreter but occasionally with one) and because of this, there is no reason a hearing person should feel intimidated or un-equipped to engage in conversation with a Deaf person. Get creative and find other ways to get that conversation started.

Here at DSU, we are committed to bridging the gaps between Deaf and hearing culture because we believe the effort is more than worthwhile. We have a great deal to learn from each other so let’s remove the obstacles standing in the way of doing just that!