How to talk to deaf people

Most people know someone who’s deaf. It might be a parent, or grandparent, an older neighbour or colleague. Or it might be a younger person with a long term condition or sudden illness.

Before I was hearing impaired, I didn’t know how to talk to deaf people. I just shouted. Now I realise how horrid that is. But what else can you do?

Thank you for shouting at me, said no deaf person ever.

‘Deaf’ or ‘hearing impaired’?

There are many ways to describe the deaf. Hearing loss is a complicated thing. With sight loss you could be -1 or -6 to need glasses. My left eye is -9 with no central vision (If you cut me off from the neck up, I’d be fine). It’s the same with hearing loss. According to the British Deaf Association, there are widely accepted terms for those who can’t hear well but people also have their own preferences for describing themselves. Here are some of them: –

  • hard of hearing – those who need greater volume or clarity
‘Grab the rain gear’?
  • deafened/hearing impaired/with hearing loss – terms used for someone losing hearing in adulthood due to illness or injury
  • partially hearing/deaf – when people have some degree of hearing but still need a hearing aid or cochlear implant to cope in everyday life. In some situations (eg. outside) they may still mishear
  • profoundly/severely deaf – people who cannot hear speech without support (various types of hearing aids or implants)
  • totally deaf/deafened – for someone who cannot hear at all. I have a dear friend in this situation whose faith and optimism are a constant inspiration to me

For the purpose of this piece, I will use the term deaf.

Able or disabled?

Some deaf people don’t like to be called disabled. With hearing support, they feel able to function almost as well as the not-deaf. Others would use the term disabled because of their level of hearing loss or the discrimination associated with it.

Because I have very little hearing without support and, even with it, struggle to hear in many situations, I would currently call myself disabled. I am waiting for another operation so that might change though.

I have a bone implanted hearing aid which is a titanium implant inserted in the skull. Once the bone has grown around the end of it, you can attach a receiver which sends sound straight into the middle ear using bone conduction. Although it’s not perfect, it has changed my life. I’m so grateful, after many years, to hear birds, rain, my own footsteps.

You can see it just behind my ear

What is it like to be deaf?

  • Isolating – have you had an ear infection or wax overload? Imagine feeling like that every day, unsure of what others have said, worrying you have misheard, feeling shut out of fast-moving conversations with family or friends
  • Shaming – somehow loss of sight is acceptable but there’s a stigma associated with hearing loss, perhaps because deaf people need others to put themselves out, in social situations. This can be irritating. But if they don’t, the deaf can feel dismissed as old or out of touch. They can appear stupid. They can come across as anti-social, shut away from shared feelings of excitement or laughter, say, at the theatre or with friends. Sometimes deaf people speak louder than others because they can’t hear their own voices. It can be embarrassing to be shushed or spoken over
  • Anxiety-making. Hearing loss can cause people to actively avoid social situation. It can be just too stressful thinking you might laugh in the wrong place or say ‘You’re welcome’ in response to ‘That’s true’ not ‘Thank you’

How you can help

  • Face the person and keep your hands away from your mouth. Deaf people rely on lip reading
  • Occasionally say things like ‘Are you following?’ Some people feel embarrassed saying ‘Pardon?’ more than once. Check the face for signs of confusion
  • If in a restaurant/public place invite the deaf person to choose the table. Usually, corner positions/cubicles/side tables are better for reducing background noise
  • If a deaf person says ‘You saw him when you left the…?’ repeat the last few words not the whole sentence. This reduces the break in continuity for everyone
  • Give the deaf person frequent eye contact to help her feel included…
…but not like this.
  • Try moving your lips more instead of shouting. This can really help and is less embarrassing. Try saying Where did you go on holiday? using dramatic lip movements. There you go…
  • Use gestures – this helps give context
  • Have a good laugh at the odd misheard moment. Turning it into a joke can help. But don’t keep going back to it. No one wants their disability to be the focus
  • The bigger the room, the higher the ceiling, the harder the floor covering – all these will make hearing more challenging so make those lip movements fast and furious in these places
The worst kind of room
  • Most people drop their voices at the end of sentences. Being Australian helps – they tend to go up. Let’s all be Aussies

Faith gatherings can be hard for the deaf. In church buildings, for example, people tend to drop their voices when praying as if God is asleep or noise-averse. It’s no doubt a mark of respect but the whole point of praying aloud is to include others. And what with the size of the room, the ceiling height and the hard flooring, deaf worshippers have enough to contend with. If you’re a pray-out-loud-er, practise saying ‘IN JESUS NAME! AMEN!!’ the way you hail a cab in Oxford Street. God won’t mind. In fact he’ll be touched by your thoughtfulness as will the deaf people who’ll know it’s time to jump up/say the grace/put the urn on.

I hope this is helpful. Like many disabilities, this one is unseen but when you meet someone deaf, it won’t take you long to realise. What will you do?

I also think we, the deaf, need to be more out there about our struggles however hard that might be.

Occasionally deafness can be useful. I was rushing to get to the Good Friday procession when I was approached in a dark alley by a drunk with a strong accent.

‘Swjopdkeioknjbui?’ he said (or similar)

I looked at him with no clue as to the question. He gazed back expectantly. There was a short pause.

‘Sorry,’ I said pointing to my hearing aid, ‘I’m deaf and late’ and strode off. He did not follow.

Feel free to use this. It clearly works.

(Images my own or courtesy of Pixabay)

Thank you for reading 🙂 You can find out more about my writing here

More information about Braver here

2 thoughts on “How to talk to deaf people

  1. Hi, this is a wonderfully helpful post. I wonder if I could share it with members of my charity, Open Ears ( please? We could put it on our website and/or Facebook pages. Naturally we would credit you in whatever way you would prefer. Many thanks, Anthea

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Anthea, I’d love you to use the post to help others via your charity. Thank you – it would be great to give a little detail about me and my writing. What would be the best way to do this? Via email perhaps?


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