Deafness is the third most common disability in the world, but you probably wouldn’t spot a deaf person in a crowd.
So how do you know someone is deaf, what’s it like to be deaf, and how can you communicate?
It’s important to realise is that people aren’t simply either deaf or hearing. There are varying degrees of deafness, from being hard of hearing to being profoundly deaf.
Someone who is hard of hearing may have the TV or radio turned up loud, may ask you to repeat what you’ve said, or may appear to be ignoring what’s being said around them.
Depending on the amount of hearing that deaf people have, they may tell you they can’t hear, you might spot a hearing aid, their voice could sound very different to what is considered normal, or they may be communicating with someone else in animated hand gestures which you probably can’t understand.
what is it like to be deaf?
Communication and community are a hugely important part of life. Deaf people are cut-off from the usual forms of communicating – a shout of warning, hearing your name at the doctors, over-hearing information in the street, or a passing word with a stranger.
It means deaf people can feel isolated and can find it hard to get information or help in an emergency. That’s part of the reason that deaf people are twice as likely as hearing people to be affected by depression, anxiety and similar problems.
As a deaf person you rely on your eyes for clues to what people are saying or feeling, and you rely on other clues like vibrations in floors to be aware of what is going on around you.
Often other people will change the way they act towards you, because they are irritated that they have to repeat themselves, or are frustrated that you don’t understand them.
how many people are deaf?
Around 100,000 people use sign language as their first, or preferred language.
9 in every ten deaf children are born to hearing parents, but only 1 in 10 of those parents will learn sign language to be able to communicate fully with their son or daughter.
helping a lip-reader
For deaf people with limited hearing, or lip-reading skills, speaking clearly will help. Don’t be tempted to speak slowly, loudly or exaggerate your mouth movements, because that just makes things harder for the person trying to understand you. Try really hard not to turn or look away while you are talking, that sounds obvious, but in conversation we do it all the time.
Speak clearly in whole sentences, without using abbreviations. Be prepared to repeat yourself if the lip-reader doesn’t understand you first time. Even the best lip-readers only catch less than half of the words which are said to them, natural facial expressions and hand gestures can really help.
Stand so that any bright light, the sun, or a window are not behind you, because when they are behind you it’s much harder to see your face and concentrate on your lips.
helping someone who is hard of hearing
Try to keep background noise down, and move somewhere quieter if necessary. Be patient and repeat yourself if necessary. Just as with lip-readers, you should speak clearly and naturally, without shouting or going slowly.
Standing the same distance away as you would normally do in conversation also helps the other person to take in your facial expression and body language, which also helps with better understanding.
working with an interpreter
If you are communicating through a sign language interpreter there are some simple things you can do to make the conversation as natural as possible. The first is to speak as naturally and as normally as you can, and to remember that for the moment the interpreter is acting as the deaf person’s voice.
Sitting next to the interpreter, and opposite the deaf person is the most effective way to talk. It also helps to make sure you aren’t sitting with your back to a bright or busy background, because that makes it harder for the deaf person to see the signing clearly.
Speak at your normal pace and don’t wait for the interpreter to catch-up. Interpreters are experts at listening and signing at the same time. In the very unlikely chance that you do go too fast, or they don’t understand something, they will stop you and ask you to repeat.
Often an interpreter won’t start signing what you are saying until you are well into your sentence, because sign language has a different grammar to English and they need the gist of what you are saying before they can start.
You should look at the deaf person while you’re talking, because it’s them you are having the conversation with. It may feel strange at first, because they will be looking at the interpreter to see what you are saying. They will look at you when they are signing what it is that they want to say.
The charity Signature have Deaf awareness courses online for individuals and businesses on their Get Deaf Aware website.