Tips for Communicating with Individuals Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

Published September 3, 2020

How you communicate matters — here’s why

Communication is an important part of life, and there are many ways to communicate with someone. There’s spoken communication, written communication, speech reading, visual communication, tactile communication, cued speech, and sign language.

Everyone communicates differently, and you may slip up while communicating with somebody who is deaf or hard of hearing. You may accidentally say: "Did you hear about that?" and wonder if you've offended the person. Do not be embarrassed — just apologize if you feel like you should, and ask where the person you are communicating with stands on those types of phrases.

To clarify, here's how various types of communication are being defined in this context:

  • Spoken communication: Communication by word of mouth; making use of oral speech.
  • Written communication: Communication by written word.
  • Speech reading: Communicating by reading lips; comprising watching the speaker’s mouth and face to understand what the speaker is saying.
  • Visual communication: Communication through symbols and imagery.
  • Tactile communication: Communication through nonverbal cues that focuses on body language.
  • Cued speech: Communication involving the mouth movements of speech and a system of hand movements to understand what a speaker is saying.
  • Sign language: Communication through visual gestures and signs.

Basic tips for communication

To properly communicate with somebody who is deaf or hard of hearing, consider these tips:

  1. Ensure that you get the person’s attention. They cannot communicate with you if they have no idea they need to be paying attention. It’s often okay to tap them on the shoulder if they are not facing you.
  2. You need to always look at the person you are speaking too and you should ensure that your face is always able to be seen, easily and effectively. Speak clearly, in a normal tone of voice, do not exaggerate sounds or whisper, and avoid having anything in your mouth or covering your mouth.
  3. If someone is using an interpreter, do not speak directly to the interpreter. Your eyes should remain on the person that you are speaking to. The interpreter is trained to pick up conversations that are not directed at them.
  4. When calling somebody that is deaf or hearing impaired, you should allow the phone to ring longer than usual, and be prepared to repeat yourself throughout the course of the conversation.

Consider People First Language

People First Language is a way of structuring how you speak, so that you are not saying someone is their disability, but someone has a disability. This is important so that it isn't stated or implied that someone's disability is the only thing that they are. People First Language is meant to be a way to further include people who have disabilities.

  • Example 1: "Ivy is hearing impaired." The use of "is" to describe Ivy, makes it seem that there is nothing to Ivy but her hearing impairment.
  • Example 2: "Ivy has hearing loss," or "Ivy has a hearing impairment." The phrasing here separates the subject, Ivy, from her disability. It’s just something she has, it’s not who or what she is.

Absolutely, there are individuals who prefer other ways of being identified, and there is no one-size-fits-all label. Individual preferences should always be respected, but if you don't yet know where a person stands on this, Person First Language is generally agreeable.

Why might individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing use companions or aids?

An individual who is deaf or hard of hearing may use a companion or an aid. This is because every person with this type of disability has learned to adapt differently to the world, depending on many factors. One of the ways that people with disabilities adapt to the world is to find ways to do the things that they cannot, such as easily communicate with people who can hear in different settings.

Some settings are harder for people with any kind of hearing impairment to communicate in. Other aids simply make someone who has a hearing impairment feel safer going about their day.

Types of companions and aids

  • Hearing aids
  • Cochlear implants
  • Hearing dog
  • Sign language
  • Text-to-talk
  • Interpreters (whether for Sign Language or spoken speech)

By remaining respectful and following basic communication tips, you may be better prepared and more effective at communicating with an individual who is deaf or hard of hearing, even if you are not and even if they make use of companions or aids.

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