At Paraquad, we are often asked how people with disabilities adapt and do things differently to accomplish everyday tasks independently or with assistance. The Lens of Ability hopes to answer those questions through firsthand accounts of people living with a disability.
When a hearing person encounters a person with a hearing loss, communication may be difficult and feel awkward but it doesn’t have to. Meet Cherese Steele, Karen Lister and Anne Frost. All three of these women experience life with hearing loss and they were kind enough to share with some “do’s and don’ts” on how to communicate with a person who is Deaf or hard of hearing.
When attempting to get the attention of a person who is Deaf or hard of hearing, it is perfectly acceptable to lightly tap her shoulder.
This is the most effective way of getting a person’s attention.
It is acceptable to lightly wave your hand within a person’s line of vision (either slightly below their direct line of sight or in their peripheral vision) without being disruptive of what currently has her attention.
It is important to remember that not all people with a hearing loss sign. Some people read lips and/or use their voice to communicate. Some prefer to communicate in writing. It is appropriate to ask what method of communication is preferred by the individual.
Regardless, it is very important to maintain eye contact. Be sure to give the person your full attention. If you are looking past them or somewhere else, a person with hearing loss may divert her attention to where you are looking, thinking there is something happening. This can be distracting and cause parts of messages to be disrupted and incomplete.
If you must look away, briefly let the person know you need to pause the conversation and explain why at the next available moment. For example, if you hear someone at the door you can hold up your hand to pause the conversation to listen and then let them know there is someone knocking. Don’t assume all people with hearing loss can lip-read. If a person does lip-read, keep in mind that this is very difficult and only a small percentage of what is spoken is understood. The rest of your message will come from your body language and the context of the conversation. Be patient.
No matter which communication method a person uses, it is appropriate to ask if she understood you.
Along the same lines, if you do not understand what is being said, ask for clarification. If either person is struggling to understand, an alternate communication method may be needed.
Many people with hearing loss who sign are familiar with using a sign language interpreter (usually a hearing person certified and licensed to facilitate communication between the Deaf and the hearing). However, interpreters are not always readily available. Another communication method that can be used is good old-fashioned pen and paper.
You can also use more recent technology such as your smartphone to type out a text message.
If you encounter two people signing in a small space it is acceptable for you to walk right through the conversation. This is very different from what most hearing people are used to. It is more distracting to interrupt the conversation than if you just walk through. No need to say anything (except maybe “excuse me”). Don’t do what Anne is doing in the picture above.
This is a good example of what to do if you have to walk through a conversation in sign language.
Now you know what is appropriate when communicating with members of your community who have hearing loss. On the other side, here are a few “don’ts” for interacting with people with hearing loss. Don’t tap a person on the top of the head to get his or her attention.
Don’t grab a person’s face to get them to look at you.
Don’t wave in front of a person’s face to get her attention, blocking the entire view of what she was focused on.
Don’t put your hand over your mouth when you speak, whether you are telling a secret or speaking directly to a person. Deaf and hard of hearing people rely on facial expressions and body language as much as lip reading and/or signing. Even if a person doesn’t lip-read, your facial expression is still important.
Don’t yell or raise your voice. Even if a person can hear some, this distorts your facial expression and mouth movements making you difficult to read.
Don’t turn your back on a person while you are still speaking.
Don’t grab a person’s hands to stop them from signing. This is how she communicates.
Cherese, Karen and Anne giving the “Deaf clap,” which involves raising their hands and twisting their wrists.
Communication methods are unique to the person using them. With a little bit of patience, you have the ability to communicate with anyone and it doesn’t have to be scary or awkward. Finding the appropriate way to communicate with all people benefits everyone.
Alyssa Schafer is the Consumer Directed Services (CDS) Timesheet Compliance Manager at Paraquad. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Photo credit: Alyssa Schafer/Ladybug Photography LLC