Talking to the Deaf
November 1999

“Talking to the Deaf,” New Era, Nov. 1999, 15

Talking to the Deaf

How do you make friends with a fellow ward member, classmate, or neighbor who is deaf? It’s not as hard as you might think, especially if you know a little bit about what you’re doing before you try. Here are some tips:

  • The term deaf applies to anyone who can’t hear most of the sounds in spoken conversation, so some people use hearing aids, others read lips, and some rely completely on sign language to communicate.

  • Be aware that there are two forms of sign language in the United States. American Sign Language (ASL) is the original sign language. This is the language deaf people use to talk to each other. The other sign language is Signed Exact English. If you want to be accepted by the deaf community, use ASL.

  • Feel free to initiate conversation with a tap on the shoulder and a wave. In general, friendly advances are welcome. Most people will understand your initial awkwardness and will accommodate you by slowing their rate of signing.

  • For those who could hear at one time but have trouble hearing now, the best skill you can develop is rephrasing. Repeating the same thing over and over again doesn’t help the hard-of-hearing person. For instance, if they don’t understand, “How are you today?” try “Are you feeling fine today?”

  • When you’re speaking to someone who can lip read, maintain eye contact, but don’t over-enunciate. Speak normally. Remember, even the most talented lip reader will not understand everything you say. Some sounds, like “m” and “b” look identical on the lips. If you say the words “marry me,” and “bury me” while looking in the mirror, you’ll see that they look a lot alike!

  • Bear in mind that hearing aids can’t single out voices. They amplify everything. Try to be aware of background noises, like air conditioners, other conversations nearby, traffic sounds, etc. All of these will make it harder for the person wearing a hearing aid to understand you.

  • Be cautious about using slang and idioms like “raining cats and dogs” when conversing with people who have a hearing impairment. Those who have been deaf or hard-of-hearing all their lives will be unfamiliar with such phrases, just as people from other countries are. You’ll be surprised how many figures of speech you use, once you try not to use them!

  • If you want to learn sign language, the best method is to learn from a person. If no one is available, try videos. As a last measure, try books.

  • Remember that the deaf world is a culture within our culture, with different social rules than those for hearing people. For example, deaf people stand closer to one another than hearing people do. This may make you uncomfortable at first. Also, try to maintain eye contact. To look away is considered rude.