Communicating With a Deaf or Hard of Hearing Person

Do you know what to do when talking to a deaf or hard of hearing person? Many hearing people feel awkward or frustrated trying to communicate with deaf/hoh people, especially when no interpreter is available. There are improvements you can make to reduce the awkwardness and frustration.

  • Physical improvements
  • Environmental improvements
  • Verbal improvements
  • Nonverbal improvements

Knowing what to do when you meet a deaf person can be especially important in emergency situations such as Hurricane Katrina. For example, a deaf person told the Houston Chronicle (September 11, 2005) that when deaf evacuees were at the Houston Astrodome registering, lines were long and deaf people had no way to communicate without interpreters.

Deaf couple signing at dinner table
Disability Images / Getty Images

Make Physical Improvements

Simple changes to your physical appearance and actions can improve communication. For example, trimming a mustache and/or beard so that it does not block the mouth, makes an instructor or supervisor easier to lipread. Making sure all of your face can be seen and that you don't have anything in your mouth, helps too.

In my personal opinion, a hearing person should not bend down to talk because it may irritate the deaf/hoh person. Bending down also does not improve communication and, in fact, may make it more difficult. (A hearing person told me that this behavior is very similar to an English speaking person yelling on the phone to a foreign person.) Carry a small pad and pen or another means of communicating in writing, such as the notepad feature on your cell phone.

Make Environmental Improvements

Controlling the environment can also help communication. Make sure that your position is good relative to a light source. Good and properly positioned lighting helps with seeing speech and signs. Monitor the noise level as noise can interfere with understanding.

In a group situation, make sure only one person talks at a time. If you have a board available, write notes on it. Prepare and distribute agendas for meetings in advance. In my personal experience, a good, though imperfect, the backup technique is to have a hearing person with a laptop sit next to the deaf person and take notes as you would for a college lecture.

Make Verbal Improvements

My personal opinion is that speaking slightly slower helps. Other deaf people prefer normal speech. You may have to repeat or paraphrase. For a hard of hearing person, speaking louder but not shouting, may help. Do not exaggerate your speech. For some reason, "Can you read lips?" seems condescending to me. I prefer that hearing people let me tell them if I can lipread. I can, but only up to a point. Do use sign language if you know any sign even it is only the sign language alphabet.

Make Nonverbal Improvements

Nonverbal communication is very important to deaf/hoh people, who get many information cues this way. Use facial expression, and gestures. You may have to touch a deaf person on the shoulder, arm, or leg to get their attention if they are close enough to you. Otherwise, you may have to stomp your foot on the floor or flash a light.

In conclusion, a hearing person who has never met a deaf person before does not need to feel awkward or frustrated. There are plenty of techniques to use. Hearing people can communicate with deaf/hard of hearing people even if they do not know sign language.

Reading Resources:

  • Communicating with Deaf People: A Primer: This page has more suggestions and facts including the fact that only 40 percent of speech is visible.
  • For Hearing People Only: This is a classic book that has helped many hearing people to understand deafness. The title is self-explanatory.
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