When you encounter someone who is deaf or hard-of-hearing, your first instinct may be to use your hands to communicate. Maybe you’re fluent in American Sign Language, know basic fingerspelling, or just use gestures to illustrate what you’re saying. As well-intentioned as your motives may be, these methods may unintentionally make you harder to understand.
That’s because not all deaf and hard-of-hearing people know sign language. In fact, of the 48 million people in the United States with hearing loss, less than 500,000 — or about 1% — use sign language.
Hearing loss is a spectrum, with varying types of loss and communication strategies. Some deaf people use hearing aids or cochlear implants; generally, this group chooses to lipread and use auditory cues when possible. For others, sound amplification doesn’t work or is otherwise unappealing. Sign language may be the primary mode of communication for them. Still others use varying combinations of spoken and sign language. It is the individual’s choice, based on their body and preferences.
The reason language preferences vary so widely is because every deaf or hard-of-hearing person has a unique environment with unique communication needs. A deaf child born to parents who are deaf and who already use ASL may begin to acquire ASL as naturally as a hearing child picks up spoken language from hearing parents. However, between 90% and 95% of deaf children are born to hearing parents who often don’t know sign language. For them, language may be acquired differently: at home, at school, or through speech therapy and/or auditory training. If they go to a school for the deaf, they may learn sign language, but if they attend a mainstream school alongside hearing peers, they are more likely to rely on lipreading. Some people who become deaf later in life may learn sign language to receive information but prefer to respond using spoken language.
When someone automatically defaults to sign language (real or mimed/gestures) with a deaf or hard-of-hearing person, it may be counterproductive. Not only is there the very real possibility that the person doesn’t know or need sign language but signing may detract from the input that is needed for communication, such as lipreading or clear speech that provides for auditory cues.
The best way to communicate with a deaf or hard-of-hearing person is simply to ask the person. Though you may be able to pick up some clues from the way they communicate with you (if they approach you with spoken language they’ll likely want you to respond in kind) check in with them by asking, "How should I communicate?" or "Do you prefer I speak or sign?" To get the most out of your conversation, you want that person to be able to express themselves in a way that is comfortable for them – whatever form that takes.