How to talk to a person with hearing loss

“The handicap of deafness is not in the ear; it is in the mind.”

~Marlee Matlin~

In my last post, I had talked about Deafness and the facts about deafness as well as hearing loss. While I did not go into it as deeply as I would have liked, a follower of mine was kind enough to leave a comment on my previous post.

On March 20th, a day or so after I posted “Deafness and You”, Hetty Elliot of the blog “Who the Hell Knows?” right here on wordpress left a very important comment. She said :

“How would you recommend communicating with someone who is deaf?”

It was an important question, for sure, and I answered it as best as I was able given the time frame and the amount of words I could put into a reply. But it wasn’t enough, in my opinion, because such an innocuous question deserves a lot more than a simple answer.

So I decided, after pursuing several writing projects and opportunities, to sit down and talk about this. While the question was simple enough to warrant a straightforward answer, I truly believe that I need to talk about a few other things.

I have much respect for the person who asked the original question, “How would you recommend communicating with someone who is deaf?“, I do believe the question should be :

“How would you recommend communication between a person with deafness or hearing loss with a person who can hear?”

I might ruffle a few feathers by saying this, but like anything else in any kind of relationship that requires interpersonal communications, it’s a two way street. Yes, I do believe that people need to learn how to communicate better with one who has a hearing disability; I mean, the numbers are staggering, to say the very least!; but I also believe it is as equally important for those with a hearing disability to be just as equally understanding of the communication difficulties, and try just as hard to get their word across.

Recently, as of last week, I had a brief but lively discussion with a friend on Discord. Text, of course. First, let me note the age gap between the two of us. I’m in my late 40’s, with profound deafness; she in her mid 30’s with perfect hearing but has a deaf sister who is roughly about the same age. The discussion centered around the fact that I did NOT know sign language, and I believe that surprised her to no end, since her deaf sister does know sign language.

But the discussion/argument centered around the fact that I did NOT go to a school for deaf children; in fact, my parents refused to send me to one, when all they wanted was a normal life for their son. My friend, bless her heart, thought my parents did me no favors by keeping me separate from those who suffer from the same disability as I do. What she did not understand was the difference in geography; the difference in generations; and the difference in the methods of communication in our world at that time.

I live in Maine, where people are spread far and wide. There were no kids my age who had hearing loss. They presumably lived within a larger populace where people of the same disabilities were more frequent, and people more accepting of others’ disabilities in that time and age. In my generation, I was vastly different than anything else and it showed in all of the public schools I went to.

Back then, sign language wasn’t widely known. Only a very small percentage of kids and parents knew sign language, and they mostly clustered around Baxter School for the Deaf. This meant, to my family and I, that I would only be able to communicate effectively with a small percentage of the population in my area, and be shut out by the majority of the rest of the population who did NOT know how to communicate with deaf or hearing impaired people.

My parents, bless their hearts, did the best they could, and I believe I came out wiser, stronger, and smarter for it. In retrospect, though, I could have used the familiarity of being around people who had the same issues I did, but I do believe the way I grew up was the best way I could have learned about life without being sheltered within the deaf community.

I was a little furious that someone would judge my parents for the hard choice they had to make; it was a judgement call they had to make back in 1975, and they made the right choice. They wanted me to grow up as normal as possible, around normal kids, with a normal childhood. They succeeded. What no one could have predicted was the events that happened after I reached adulthood. Nothing could have prepared me for that.

And I blame it on the misunderstanding between people who can hear, and people who cannot hear or hear well.

I remember a time when my parents attempted to connect me with people with the same disability as I have. They signed me up at a local Camp for the Deaf, and took me for one day. I was happy as a lark, and thought I’d get to find some friends who I could play with. That’s not to say that I didn’t have any friends because I most certainly did; I just didn’t have any friends who couldn’t hear like myself.

When we arrived at the Camp, we were greeted by camp counselors who showed us around the camp. I do have a very dim recollection of my experience there, but my mind has blocked most of it since it was such a negative experience to me. As we walked through the camp, the one thing that stuck out at me was the silence. Understandably so! But what wasn’t expected was the look of innate distrust thrown at our directions from kids of all ages as they stand in their doorways of their camphouses, warily watching us as we trudged on by.

It certainly wasn’t a typical kid reaction that I had grown accustomed to. Kids running around, screaming, hollering, shenanigans all around; oh no, not this. This was like watching a silent film based on the Children of the Corn. Kids just standing there, distrust clearly written on their faces as we walked by; solemn faces, no light in their eyes, nary a smile to be found on any of these baby-faced kids.

My reaction? I burst out crying. Mom and dad took me home, and that was the last I saw of a deaf camp, or school for that matter.

By far and large, in my experience, members of the deaf community has been mostly distrusting of the rest of the world. In some ways, it’s understandable, but in other ways, it’s not so easily understandable. Some choose to not interact with the rest of the world, only trusting those with disabilities like theirs, preferring to keep their world small. Others, thankfully so, have embraced the rest of humanity and struggle through the quicksand of Life, just like any other human being.

So, yes, I reiterate : It’s not how YOU should communicate with US; it’s how WE all should learn to communicate, period. Distrust starts with misunderstandings, and misunderstandings start with judgement. When there is no communication, then people will misunderstand, assume and then judge. It becomes a vicious circle of negativity that goes on and on, and one I’ve experienced personally, and one I’ve also experienced as I stand outside looking in at the various reactions of members of the deaf community with the rest of the world, and yes, sometimes with themselves.

But now, let’s answer the question put forth to me by the lovely Hetty Elliot.

How would you recommend communicating with someone who is deaf?

  • Sign Language is usually the preferred mode of communication with members of the deaf community, but honestly? It should be a mainstream language that should be taught in all schools. Not only can people with hearing loss benefit from it, but so too can children with autism/aspergers as well as people who are mute. There are a lot of uses for Sign Language, and I advocate the use of Sign Language in an everyday setting. So says the one person who does NOT know sign language…
  • The majority of people with hearing loss or deafness relies on lip reading. Lip reading is the art of watching the mouth move as it forms words and syllables. It’s an inexact science at best, but it serves us well. Not everyone who can’t hear knows how to lip read; for instance, late-deafened do not automatically know how to lip read. But the premise behind lip reading is simple. Just face them, talk as you normally do, and pronunciate your words clearly. Obviously face masks makes that difficult, and with good reason. If you feel safe enough, you can step back 6 feet, slide your mask off a little bit, just enough to show your lips and then do the same. Don’t look away, don’t show them the back of your head, and just speak and pronounce clearly and precisely. It’s not that hard.
  • When all else fails, write! Get a notepad, and write. Show them you are making an effort to communicate and allow them to communicate with you. It’s not the best means of communication, but it is certainly effective in a pinch.
  • There ARE some speech to text apps but they are inefficient at best. They would also do in a pinch.
  • Some people with deafness have their own personal intrepators. When that happens, PLEASE don’t talk to the intprepator and pretend that the person you are actually supposed to talk to isn’t standing right there. Face the person with hearing loss, and allow the other person to do his/her job.
  • Sometimes body language and facial expressions help if nothing else does. Most people with hearing loss picks up cues from others by reading body language or facial expressions. If nothing else seems to be working, the fall back are visual cues you yourself can use to get your point across. I wouldn’t suggest waving your arms wildly or being flamboyant in every conversation you have with a deaf or HoH (hard of hearing) individual, but it would do in a pinch!

On the flip side :

  • People with deafness or hearing loss can’t expect everyone to bend over backwards to cater to our needs without getting something in return. By that I mean understanding comes from both sides of the fence. People who have not been exposed to individuals with hearing loss would not, and do not, understand how to communicate with people w/ hearing loss simply because they have never been exposed to it before. Or taught. They simply do not know. The majority of the time, it’s not because they are ignoring us, or because they are looking down on us, or maybe because we are different and thus not worth the time; it generally narrows down to … They. Don’t. Know.
  • With that being said, there ARE some very ignorant people out there…who will absolutely refuse to communicate with each other if they only took the time to do so. And it happens on BOTH sides. Unfortunately, I’ve had my fair share of that, but I’ve also had times when people thought I was a snob, and then once they got to know me, they loved me for me.

A long rant, for sure, but one that needed to be said. Ironically, communication, or the lack thereof, seems to be the only issue here, and one that needs to be advocated more often.

After all, you never know, you might end up losing your hearing too someday.


5 thoughts on “How to talk to a person with hearing loss

  1. joe, I didn’t even know you have were deaf until you turned your back and I said something and your sister said you know he’s deaf. I never thought of you as any different 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. 😀 thank you Melinda! Yeah, that’s pretty common with me. And I could always help out by wearing hearing aids, right? 😀

      Like

  2. I know someone very dear to me who is hard of hearing. I allow this person to read my lips, and I make sure the words are clear for him to understand. If I speak to HIM, I dont turn my back, as this is not only pointless but rude in nature. I also work with an individual who is also deaf. I always make sure to pull my mask down when speaking to her. In order to form worthy conversations this is best for both people…and much appreciated. People need to be more mindful and walk the extra step to ensure communication is possible. Never think of it as a “disability”, rather think of it as a “difference” in which we all have.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hey I’m famous now!! I’m so glad you like my question. Thanks for the information. I’d hate to impede communication or offend someone. I appreciate how you take a balanced approach, too, in that you say that people should should cut each other a little slack in both directions. I think that’s good advice for life in general, everyone trying their best to communicate and understand one another, rather than getting frustrated. Speaking of frustrated, don’t you hate when you can tell people are annoyed with you? I think I mentioned I’m having a little bit of trouble hearing clearly lately, possibly because of chronic sinus inflammation. Often people’s voices sound like they’re underwater and I have to keep asking to speak louder and more clearly (I even had to do the dreaded “spell it” a couple of times 😖). I feel so embarrassed when I see that look on the other person’s face, especially with people much younger than I am (and I’m only 33). It’s a good lesson in having patience with others.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do hate it, and there’s truth behind the saying, “actions speak louder than words.” What people DON’T get is that while we may not be able to hear or hear well, we can still see, and our visual sense picks up the slack for our loss of hearing. So even if we can’t hear something, doesn’t mean we can’t see the looks on people’s faces, or read the body language they give out. And those are the worst, because more often then not, that’s when we can’t say anything for fear of being told we are being paranoid. But make no mistake, the words people don’t use speaks volumes too. Sometimes I wonder just how much language changed us in ways people don’t realize. Are we smarter than animals, or do we just sound smarter? 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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