Not all deaf people are the same, but here are some honest and helpful tips for thinking through your interactions.
Here’s the problem when I write about anything regarding deaf-centered topics: you might assume that we’re all the same and that what applies to me applies to everyone else that’s deaf. But this isn’t the case.
So, this is a post that’s going to have a disclaimer: What I have to say isn’t necessarily true for the next deaf person you meet, and the next. And the next. But, it just might be.
Rather than get you to draw this visual image in your mind, like a textbook graphic with labels and whatnot, of a deaf person, I’d like you to start practicing letting go of certain assumptions about us. Approach us with a little more understanding of possibilities. You can fill in the blanks after you’ve met each person, using cues from each person. Let us be your guide to our own selves.
That said, here are a few assumptions people make about me every day unless I am holing up in my home like a hermit binge-watching old episodes of Star Trek or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Problem: You think raising your voice is the way to communicate with me after I’ve just told you I was deaf.
You mean well, but the truth is you could yell in my face and I’m not going to hear you. So you’re raising your voice is just calling attention to our conversation and I might rather keep our conversation private. I don’t need the people around me to know my business.
Sometimes, in fact, you raising your voice makes it harder for me to lip-read you.
Solution: Ask if raising your voice will help. In my case, it won’t, but for some it might. If the person says no, don’t do it.
Problem: You assume that I can lip-read everything because you just asked me if I can lip read and I said I can sometimes, depending on the person.
Here’s the flaw: Most of us by now, even totally unskilled lip-readers and possibly even most hearing people, don’t have a problem lip-reading the sentence “Can you lip-read?” It is used so often, it’s the easiest thing to lip-read. The truth is that the average skilled lip-reader catches somewhere around 30% of a sentence. Don’t quote me on that, because I’m not a researcher. Nevertheless, it’s pretty normal that in a sentence with 10 words, we might catch three. If we’re skilled with English, we might fill in the blanks enough. You can’t assume this is going to be true because a lot of us don’t lipread well at all.
I happen to be a skilled lip-reader, but it is entirely influenced by who I am talking with and whether I know the context of what is being said. Sometimes I’ll have difficulty understanding someone I’ve known my entire life, and then a few minutes later I can perfectly lip-read a stranger I just met. Sometimes a bearded face makes things impossible, sometimes it doesn’t. Mumbling is usually going to make attempts to lip-read a waste of time, and I can barely lip-read anything on a screen, like a TV show or a movie, so please don’t expect me to try.
Solution: Check for understanding. If you know we are not lip-reading you correctly, then you continuing to talk to us as if we’re understanding you is a complete waste of your time and ours. Switch to a new method, if you don’t sign. Try writing notes instead.
If you meet someone like me that is a skilled lip-reader, precede your sentences with context. Tell us what the subject is first. Sometimes this works wonders, but only for people who lip-read.
Side note: It’s not our job to become skilled lip-readers. It’s up to us what we want to do and what we feel capable of doing.
Please understand as well that most of us who are skilled lip-readers can be completely lost in a group. Once I’m talking to more than one person at the same time, forget about it. I’m lost. You change the way you’re talking when you’re talking to one more person other than me, and then all of a sudden I can no longer lip-read you. Trying to follow a conversation in a group through the use of lip-reading is like watching a ping pong ball be swatted back and forth across the table while trying to read something written on it. Come on, now.
Problem: You meet someone who is deaf and for some reason, whether based on personal experience or just your own conclusion, you “dumb down” either your language or how you interact with me. In other words, you believe I can’t think on your level.
This is a pet peeve of mine. I’m human and I do feel slighted when I feel that someone is talking down to me. I feel slighted when I’m treated as if my being deaf means I should be treated as less of a peer and more of a child.
Let me give a glaring example: Awhile back I was in a store where I was given a sticker at the register. A sticker. Do you know who else got stickers in the store? Kids. And adults with severe developmental disabilities. How about we reserve the stickers for kids, and treat the adults like adults, including developmentally disabled adults? The clerk even put it on my shirt before I realized what she was doing.
I admit it took a lot to exercise patience to not bawl her out for doing so, and I do take a person’s intentions into account. Nevertheless, I was furious, and I don’t get angry easily.
Solution: Treat us like peers. If it turns out that due to educational delays that are usually the fault of a fundamentally-flawed educational system that seems set up for failure, then you can adjust your language accordingly as needed. Don’t dial it down all the way. Follow the cues of the person you’re communicating with.
Problem: I ask you to write notes and you keep talking. Or you say. “Never mind.” Or you don’t respond and you just move on. Or, or, or.
Some of us are comfortable writing notes back and forth. We might even bring a paper and pen to save you a little trouble. It’s frustrating when people aren’t willing to give us this simple accommodation. (It’s also often a blatant disregard for our rights under laws such as the Americans With Disabilities Act, depending on who you are.)
Solution: Write notes. I asked you to do it, hopefully politely. I would not ask if it wasn’t an accessible way to communicate with me. I realize it may take longer, but surely you want me to actually know what you’re saying instead of guessing. Surely you don’t want me to leave with some false idea of what you were saying. Surely.
Problem: You think that writing notes, relying on me lip-reading, talking louder is always the solution. Sometimes it is not. Sometimes these will not work at all.
Some of my community members were not provided with the essential education needed for true literacy. It’s debatable why this happens, whether it’s the fault of the schools or the fault of schools and parents, or the fault of schools, parents and the kids, or the fault of the fault of the fault. The debate’s a heavy one. I’d rather we get to solutions. (In my humble opinion as a non-educator, the solution is a promotion of bilingual literacy, American Sign Language AND English for example, in every environment of a deaf person’s life.)
Solution: Ask what the deaf person needs in order to communicate effectively and do what you can to provide it. Sometimes you are legally obligated to do so if you’re, among other things, an employer, a government organization, or a place of public accommodation. It’s a long list of who needs to provide access.
But for a moment, let’s put aside the fact that the law protects us. I want you to think of the person you love the most in the world and I want you to imagine that this person cannot hear. This person you love goes out somewhere and needs some kind of service and asks for accommodations. How are you going to feel if someone says no, or makes no effort, or minimal effort, or seems oblivious?
Do it because it is right, not because you might have to.
Do it because we’re human. On some level, we are the same.