Editor’s Note: Hearing loss affects us all in our daily lives in some way or another. Our guest writer today, Mallory Corbett, has a Bachelor’s Degree in Deaf Studies, and we asked her to write some on the aspects of conversing and communicating with deaf persons.
Communication is an essential life skill for all human beings. As a child, everyone learns how to speak and develops the ability to read in their parents’ native language. Unfortunately, deaf people in the world are at a tremendous disadvantage from the start. Some deaf people were born with some hearing, and others have never known what it is like to hear. There are varying levels of residual hearing one may have, so no deaf person is exactly the same. Today’s discussion will focus on some basic rules to follow, though, if you find yourself in a situation where you have to communicate with a deaf person.
Let’s start with some facts about deaf people within the United States, and some of these may amaze you too. According to the National Institute on Deafness, 2 to 3 of every 1,000 children born have detectable hearing loss, and 1 in 8 Americans (ages 12+) have some form of hearing loss in both ears. Another interesting fact is that men are twice as likely as women to have hearing loss — and that last fact intrigued me because, in my experience, I have met more deaf men than deaf women over the years.
The most common “solution” to deafness in the United States is cochlear implants or hearing aids. Contrary to popular belief, though, cochlear implants and hearing aids are not a cure for deafness. You still have to take these devices out of your ear before going to bed and before any activity involving water. These devices produce sound digitally, and everyday speech sounds very different to them than it does to us. Yes, these devices can assist deaf people, but they are far from perfect at picking up everything, especially in loud environments or group settings.
Since deaf people cannot rely on their ears, they often use visual modes of communication, such as American Sign Language (ASL), cued speech, lip-reading, and gestures. Deaf people also use other cues like body language and facial expressions to fill in the gaps when they engage in a conversation. Even if you’re nervous about talking to deaf people, you actually don’t have to know fluent ASL to have a good chat with them. For the most part, they are patient and willing to work with you when they have the time, and they may even teach you ASL signs along the way, if you show interest in learning them.
Begin by asking how they would like to talk to you and then follow suit. For example, if the deaf person starts to write something, write down your responses. A common misconception is that deaf people cannot understand written English, which is simply not true. Many deaf people can also read lips pretty well, but keep in mind that it is nearly impossible to read every word a person says when it comes to lip-reading. The number one thing to do is speak at an average pace and don’t overenunciate what you say. Maintain eye contact with the deaf person, so they have a clear view of your face at all times. The deaf person may ask you to repeat yourself at certain points, so patience is a must when communicating with them in this way. Consider rephrasing what you said if you need to repeat yourself since some words in English are more challenging to understand than others. Lastly, you should never yell at deaf people when talking to them. If they are profoundly deaf in both ears, it will actually do you no good to get their attention by yelling anyway. A simple tap on the shoulder is the ideal way to get a deaf person’s attention.
Here is one last thing to keep in mind while interacting with deaf people. They consider it offensive if you wave your hands around in a demeaning way that mocks their form of communication. Like anyone else, they can tell when someone is making ridiculous hand gestures to make fun of them purposely. Even though it may feel awkward at first, don’t be afraid to talk to deaf people.
Before I conclude, I wanted to share a brief story. I know a deaf friend that can somewhat hear, but it wasn’t until they reached the age of 5 that their parents realized something was off. After learning that this family member had a moderate to severe hearing loss, the parents chose the path they thought was best. They went with the option to provide this deaf individual with hearing aids and speech therapy training. Going through the public school system proved to be a struggle for them, but they worked hard and made it through high school with a great GPA despite all the odds. Eventually, this person learned ASL in their late teen years, which opened up a whole new world for them. Sadly, to this day, their parents haven’t picked up on any ASL.
This kind of story is a reality for countless deaf people in the United States. Over 90% of deaf children are born to parents who can hear. Unfortunately, many parents get advice from doctors who will usually coax them into the hearing aid or cochlear implant route. In reality, ASL is an actual language, and it is a valid form of communication; however, many parents want their children to be as “normal” as possible, and they will go to great lengths in hopes of seeing it happen. What they don’t realize is that it isn’t a bad thing to be deaf, and there are several perks to learning ASL too.
Communication is essential in daily life, making it quite frustrating for deaf people to live in this hearing-oriented world. Miscommunications happen a lot to deaf people, but it is not solely their fault in many instances. When talking to deaf people, we have to do our due diligence and communicate clearly with them. The only thing that makes deaf people different from a typical, average person is their lack of hearing in one or both ear. So treat them with respect just like anyone else you may meet. Their disability doesn’t make them any less human than you, and they deserve opportunities to interact with others too.