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Ten Top Tips

10 Top Tips for Communicating with Deaf People  

These are not ‘THE Top 10’ things to do, just ten things it’s useful for you to be aware of when dealing with Deaf people. Our Deaf Awareness courses can explain all of these to you and your colleagues and go into more detail specific to your environment and needs.

1. Think Visual
2. Body language
3. Lip-reading
4. Be prepared, be patient
5. Write things down
6. Getting and keeping attention
7. Sounds
8. Sign Language
9. Get an Interpreter
10. Talking through an Interpreter 

1. Think Visual

Deaf people rely on their eyes for information and communication. What they can’t see, they don’t know! So it’s important that information is presented visually as much as possible. Clear signage and pictures will help them get their bearings more quickly.

Good lighting is important. No matter how you are communicating, if the lighting is poor, Deaf people will struggle. And make sure the light is on what they need to see. Don’t stand with your back to the light or a bright window, as this will dazzle them.

Keep clear lines of sight. If there are obstacles or clutter between you, move them aside or move away from them, as these may block the view or at least be distracting.

2. Body language

Body language is important when you’re communicating with anybody, but especially Deaf people. Try and relax and use your body to help convey what you mean.

Facial expression is a very important part of this. Deaf people are particularly sensitive to facial expression. If there’s no facial expression, it’s hard to work out what you’re trying to say and how you’re saying it. If you look stern, they may wonder if you’re annoyed at them. A smile can go a long way to easing communication. Try and make your facial expression reflect what you’re saying.

Use gestures. Sign Language is much more than gesture, but if you can’t sign, gesture is a great help in getting across simple messages. Don’t be afraid to use it to indicate ‘sit down’ or ‘please wait’, for example, or to point to what you’re talking about.

3. Lip-reading

Lip-reading is mostly guesswork. So please don’t expect that to be the solution to communicating with Deaf people. If you’re using your whole body to try and communicate, and if the Deaf person is familiar with what you’re talking about, then good clear (but not exaggerated) lip patterns may be some help. But nothing is more wearing, tiring and frustrating for most Deaf people than for others to expect them to be able to lip-read.

So please don’t ask “Can you lip-read?”

4. Be prepared, be patient

Being prepared is important with any customer or client, and a Deaf person could turn up at any time. So don’t be surprised! And if you always have a notepad and pen to hand (it doesn’t take up much space!) then you will be prepared for at least the most basic simple communication with most Deaf people. Even if you find someone who can’t read very well, or doesn’t understand some of what you write, you may be able to draw a picture or diagram that will help communicate – or choose simpler words.
Being patient is also something that should go without saying. It’s especially important when you’re trying to communicate with somebody who doesn’t speak the same language, or who can’t hear what you’re saying. Don’t forget, the Deaf person is just as keen to communicate with you as you are with them, so a little patience with each other, and accepting that things may take slightly longer, will help both of you.

5. Write things down

Notepad and pen are two of the most useful tools in communicating with Deaf people. Most of them will find it easier to understand simple notes than to work out what you’re trying to say to them if they can’t hear.
Keep it simple. This is good advice with anybody. As a lot of Deaf people still don’t receive a good enough education to have a high level of English, it’s especially important to use plain, simple English when writing to them.

Draw a picture or a diagram if you think this can help get your meaning across.

6. Getting and keeping attention

Do not shout! This is unlikely to work, and is too easily misunderstood, both by the Deaf person and anybody else within earshot! Get Deaf people’s attention by using the senses they do possess, not the one they don’t.

  • Raise your hand or wave it gently in the Deaf person’s line of vision – not too close or too vigorously, but just enough to attract their attention.
  • Tap them gently on the forearm or, sometimes, the upper arm, but not on the back or head!
  • Try not to approach from behind.
  • Tap the desk or table. The vibration will get their attention.
  • Flick the lights on and off quickly if this is convenient and appropriate to the situation.

Maintain eye contact when talking, because if you look away, this will at least disrupt and possibly stop the conversation from the Deaf person’s point of view. They may also feel you are not interested in the conversation.

7. Sounds

Do not rely on sound or assume that the sounds can convey anything to the Deaf person.

Deaf people may be able to hear some things, but that does not mean they are meaningful sounds to them, as they are to hearing people. (In the same way as ‘blind’ does not usually mean that the person can see NOTHING.)

Try not to let sounds interrupt your dialogue with the Deaf person. If you MUST respond, for example to the telephone or a call from a colleague, let the Deaf person know visually what is happening before you respond, e.g. by holding up a finger to indicate ‘just a second’ and pointing towards the person who is calling, or making the ‘phone’ shape with your hand and pointing to the telephone.

Loud noises that may be heard by the Deaf person may be even more unsettling to them than to you, as they are unlikely to know what has caused the noise. So try and be patient if they are momentarily unsettled by a loud noise.

8. Sign Language

Sign Language is not universal. Deaf people in Britain use British Sign Language. In Northern Ireland some use Irish Sign Language.

British Sign Language is very different from English, not just in that it is a visual-gestural language, but also in terms of its grammar and syntax. It is a language in its own right, which works as differently from English as does Welsh or Chinese.

The face, body and hands are all used when signing, and Deaf people look at the face, not the hands, when somebody is signing to them.

Finger-spelling is only a very small part of Sign Language. It is used mostly to spell out English words on the hands when needed. However, if you don’t know how to sign, finger-spelling can be very useful as a way of communicating some basic, simple things.

9. Get an Interpreter

For planned meetings and in-depth conversations, try and book a registered, qualified BSL/English interpreter. This is important not only for efficient communication, but often also for legal reasons.

Interpreters do not participate in the conversation. They are there simply to interpret and facilitate communication. So it is not appropriate to engage them in conversation, try and involve them in the discussion, or to ask their opinions. Their code of ethics does not allow them to do this.

Interpreters are scarce and almost impossible to book at short notice. So advance planning and agreement of times is important when trying to book an interpreter. If you cannot find an appropriate interpreter, it is best to arrange the meeting for another time.

Videophone interpreting via webcams and other technologies is becoming more and more a realistic prospect. Actual Signs is developing one such service and will be happy to discuss this with you.

10. Talking through an Interpreter

It takes longer to talk through an interpreter, so allow more time than usual for the meeting. (This is true of any interpreted discussion – high-level international political meetings allow at least twice as long when interpreters are involved.)

Turn-taking works differently. The interpreter will never be perfectly in time with the person speaking or signing. So you need to be aware that, after you stop speaking, the interpreter will still be signing what you have said. Don’t start speaking again until the Deaf person has had time to take in what you’ve said and the opportunity to respond if they want to.

In meetings with several participants, hearing people sometimes carry on talking to each other all the time, while the Deaf person can never break into the conversation because of the time-lag through the interpreter! Try and be aware of this and adjust the dynamics of the conversation accordingly.

And Finally…

Talk to Actual Signs about how to make YOUR service more Deaf Aware:
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