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Deaf Awareness: Tips for better Communication

Published: 9 May 2024

The most difficult challenge around inclusion of deaf visitors is communication. I’m going to ask you to do one important thing this week, as an individual, or as a team, I want you to think about what your visitor journey is like for a person who is D/deaf. You will no doubt discover those ‘of course, I didn’t even think of that as a barrier’ moments, and if you do, share them with me, I want to know what you learn this week.  To get you started, here are some tips on improving face to face communication:

1. Visibility: this means ensuring there is good lighting, appropriate distance for lip reading, ensuring we have our glasses on or contacts in, not having the sun or a bright light behind you.

2. Lip Reading: speak normally, don’t over enunciate, enunciate properly (no mumbling), face the person, and make sure they are looking at you, if you are a fast speaker, slow down a little, trim the facial hair so we can see your lips (or better yet be clean shaven), keep hands and objects away from the face/mouth as they are very distracting, don’t talk while chewing food or gum. Don’t whisper or speak too loudly, as we are distracted by that, and prefer normal speech volume. Do so if required if needing to be quiet, or in a noisy environment.

3. Body Positioning: position yourself where you can be lipread, heard (within the normal range of spatial proximity, three feet), sit down if needed, do not speak behind the person. In a restaurant, when possible, position yourself that what you say, gets directed to the a Deaf or HOH person, rather than to an empty void. (Not easy, but at least try!)

4. Noise: be aware of background noise and eliminate it where possible, by turning down or muting the stereo, TV, or relocating to a quieter setting if possible. If noise cannot be eliminated, be prepared to repeat, either a word or the full sentence. Or better yet, sign, finger spell, or write down what you are trying to say. Speak up if needed.

5. Gesturing & Body Movement: reduce gesturing while talking and stay still if possible, don’t move around while talking because doing so means lip reading is harder and we become distracted by your actions. If you must move around because you are demonstrating something, then be prepared to explain again, or break it down into segments. Keep your head up so that your mouth is visible. Give eye contact.

6. Repeat: repetition is often necessary. When you are asked to, please do not be frustrated, or change the words you used, and do not dumb down or simplify what you are saying, unless it’s asked, or needs to be age appropriate for a child. We will often tell you if it is a word we missed or the whole thing, so repeat back only what we ask for. Speak up if you are a quiet speaker. A note: a single syllable word is harder to lipread and decipher than a multisyllabic word, so if one must change a word, use a multisyllabic one instead.

7. Timing: timing is crucial, and this holds for everyone. If we are actively doing something, either wait until we are finished, or get our attention and ask us to stop if it’s important and we are able to do so. Also give us time to process what has been said, stop periodically to check to see if we have comprehended what you have said.

8. Attention: ensure you have our attention, by making sure we are looking at you and aware that we are being spoken to, tap the person on the shoulder, stand in front, eliminate distractions, and even ask if we are ready, if we have been interrupted from something. Please don’t wave your hand in front of our face, it is rude. Eye contact is essential between both of you.

9. Sign language: learn and use sign language if your family member, partner, or friend requires it. We understand if you make mistakes, we will help you learn, and we also understand if you aren’t proficient. The effort, and caring behind it is appreciated. If in a customer service or emergency service field, it is crucial to know at least a rudimentary amount if signs so that you can at least convey something to the individual.

10. Assumptions: do not assume we are following every word, or understood every word simply because we are looking at you, actively participating, saying yes, or responding appropriately. Sometimes we are just guessing or faking it. Don’t assume that because we don’t respond, that we are ignoring you, snubbing you, snobbish, or don’t want to talk to you (although sometimes that is true!). Just because we get part of the conversation does not mean we get it all. Sometimes one word missed derails the rest of the conversation, or we become distracted and miss key elements of the conversation. Ask if we understood, clarify what we think we heard. Most of us do this by habit, but often, we also don’t like to admit when we didn’t understand something.

11. Understand: that like anyone else, if we are ill, tired, distracted by our children or environment, that we are affected by things we cannot always control or eliminate, just like you. If these things affect your own abilities to communicate effectively, then understand it is doubly difficult for us to overcome these as well. No one is always at their best, and that always impacts successful communication. Also understand that sometimes, no matter how hard we try to focus, or participate, the BRAIN will simply shut down and say it has had enough. We will tell you if we are having a bad communication day, and why.

12. Instead of phoning, use text, email, instant messaging, Facebook, etc to contact the Deaf or HOH individual.

We have put together a video to share best practice from across the sector on how to improve accessibility for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, for people with sight impairments and for those with physical needs. We also asked them for their advice on how to get started. Take a look here.

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