How to communicate with deaf and hard of hearing people

We take talking to each other so much for granted that when faced with someone for whom everyday speech is difficult, it can often catch us off guard. However, communication with the hearing impaired doesn’t have to be challenging. Indeed, it can be just as fulfilling as talking with anyone else. No mastery of BSL required!

All you need to do is memorise some handy tips.

1) Relax, and treat it like any other conversation

A common problem people have when speaking with people who are deaf is to overcompensate. Rather than speaking clearly, they’ll just speak loudly. They may get the wrong idea about lip reading and make really exaggerated enunciations, which actually makes lips harder to read. They may try to avoid complicated words and really dumb down their speech, which can be patronising.

Just relax and treat it like any other conversation. Speak as you normally would and avoid mumbling or covering your mouth. Most communication is in expression and body language, so feel free to use natural instances of these to help get your point across better.

2) Learn how they prefer to communicate

Everyone is different and has their own preferences and tastes in how they like to communicate with people. Before engaging in conversation, learn how they like to talk to people. Do they sign? Can they lip read? Are they able to hear, just not well?

Tailor the conversation to them and let them determine its pace.

Avoid use of jargon, slang or abbreviations too. While you shouldn’t dumb down your speech, remember that deaf people pretty much have their own language in BSL. Try to keep things simple and to the point.

3) Always speak face-to-face

Among deaf and hard-of-hearing people, the rudest thing a person can do to them is turn their face away. It’s rude in general, but especially in this circumstance. This is because many deaf people will rely on lip reading in order to understand what is being said to them. By looking away, you’re basically making it harder for them to participate in the conversation.

So always make sure you’re facing the person you’re talking to and try not to move around too much either. Likewise, avoid doing anything that might obscure your face, whether it’s covering your mouth or wearing certain types of clothing.

Another handy tip is to keep an eye on the surroundings. Try to ensure the light is bright and even, avoiding any hard shadows or sitting directly in front of glaring lights. Try to keep any background noise to a minimum as well.

4) Keep conversation ordered and coherent

Before you start speaking, make it plain what the topic of conversation is. This helps the other person with guessing what you’re saying and allows them to follow on more smoothly.

If there’s more than one person in the conversation, it’s also important that everyone takes turns while speaking. Having several people talking at once is confusing even without impaired hearing, so throw that into the mix and someone will get frustrated. Keep everyone silent when one person is talking, and if someone else wants to speak they should wait until the other’s finished first. While speaking, check occasionally that everyone is able to keep up with the conversation.

Remember Tip 3 too. Always face the hearing-impaired person. Never address just those who can hear, and always make sure that your face is clearly visible.

5) Use gestures and body language

We’ve mentioned before already how most communication is done through body language. This is especially important when communicating with the deaf and hard of hearing. Make liberal use of hand gestures, body language and expression. Channel your inner Italian!

This can range from very simple things such as pointing to or touching things you’re talking about, to more elaborate miming and gestures. After a while it should start to come more naturally, and you’ll find it easier to spontaneously use your body as a medium of communication. This will help get your point across more clearly, even if the other person doesn’t quite understand exactly what you’re trying to say out loud.

If the person you’re talking to doesn’t quite seem to get what you’re trying to see, repeat it again in a different way. There’s also nothing at all wrong with writing it down either.

6) Always ask if you can improve

Again, we’d like to remind you to relax and not overthink this. Chatting to someone who is deaf or hard of hearing can seem daunting, if only because no one wants to cause offence. But, really, it’s just like talking to anyone else. It just takes a bit of experience to consider the unique quirks and adjustments that come along with it.

Do not be shy in asking the other person whether they were able to understand you while you were speaking. Even more importantly, don’t be afraid to ask if there was anything you could have done to make it easier. Every person is different, but from repeated conversations and feedback, you should soon acquire a good general idea what methods work and what do not.

This is an important rule of any communication, no matter who it’s with. It’s not just about talking, it’s also about listening to what the other person has to say.

Listen to your partner, and it’s hard to go wrong.

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