Unsure How To Communicate With Deaf People? Here's Some Advice

Our new survey shows more than half of British adults don’t feel confident talking to deaf people, so here's some advice on helping those with hearing loss feel less isolated and lonely

Imagine if you were with a group of friends and one of them said something funny, which you didn’t quite catch. Now imagine, while everyone else is laughing, you ask them to repeat it, only to be met with the response “oh, it doesn’t matter.” What if this happened to you again and again, in lots of different situations? For many deaf people, this is far from hypothetical; it’s real life.

As part of Deaf Awareness Week 2019, we’re launching the results of our new survey, which reveals that more than half of British adults don’t feel confident talking to deaf people. One in five have been nervous when speaking to a deaf person, simply because they didn’t know what to do.

That’s not all. Aside from a hesitation to talk to deaf people, it seems the nation also isn’t sure what deafness really is. There are 11million deaf people in the UK, equivalent to one in six adults, yet 70% of our survey respondents said they didn’t know anyone who was deaf.

One in three weren’t sure if deaf people could detect sound without hearing technology - the vast majority can. A third also revealed that they’ve slowed down their speech for a deaf person. Unfortunately, this only really serves to make lip-reading much more difficult.

I am reminded of my own childhood as a deaf person and an old family friend who, in his well-meaning way, used to over-enunciate every single word to me thinking it would make conversation easier. It didn’t, and I was too embarrassed to tell him. He’d have been mortified if he’d known.

In my student days, I went so many parties where dimly-lit conditions made it nigh-on impossible for me to lip-read. People’s solution was to lean in and shout or endlessly repeat things, when all that’s needed is a slight rephrasing. Every deaf person has had experiences like these and it can mean you miss out on much of what happens around you.

At the National Deaf Children’s Society, we’re only too aware of the feelings of isolation and loneliness that deaf people can experience. It’s even harder for children to deal with. We often hear about deaf children standing alone in the playground, missing out on games and classroom chatter and not being invited to birthday parties. The saddest part is that with a little bit of effort and a small amount of deaf awareness, it can so easily be avoided.

The last thing we want is for hearing people to feel guilty. But we do want everyone to engage with deaf people of all ages, particularly children, and to feel confident and relaxed when they do.

To help with this, we’ve published our top five tips for talking to deaf children. They’re really simply things and if everyone picked up even a couple of them, become a little more deaf aware and made a bit of extra effort, it really would make a huge difference to the lives of the UK’s 50,000 deaf children.

Children just want to chatter, play games and be included in the fun and games happening around them. Deaf children are, of course, no exception.

So here are our five top tips for talking to a deaf child:

1. Every deaf child will have a preferred method, so find out if they use speech, British Sign Language or a mixture of both.

2. Speak clearly and naturally. Deaf children will try to lip-read, so speak as you normally would. Speaking slowly or too loudly makes lip-reading much more difficult.

3. Make sure they can see your mouth. Covering your mouth with your hands, eating or chewing can make lip-reading very difficult. It also muffles any sound you’re making.

4. Use visual cues where possible. Point to what you’re talking about, and don’t be shy about using gestures to support your communication.

5. Don’t give up and never say “I’ll tell you later”. Deaf children want to be involved just like their friends, so if one method doesn’t work, don’t be scared to improvise, such as typing things on your phone or writing on pieces of paper.