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How to Interact with Deaf People

A Hearing Individual Discovering the Deaf World

I would like to start by prefacing that I am a hearing person. My ties to the Deaf World began with a family friend who is Deaf. During my senior year of undergrad, I decided to take a full year of American Sign Language (or ASL) and fell in love with the language and culture.

Over the past years, I tried my best to immerse myself in the Deaf World and learn all that I can. I’ve visited Gallaudet University (the only university dedicated to and for the Deaf), read and watch cultural pieces about the Deaf, and continue to practice and improve my ASL. I’ve learned quite a lot about this minority and their struggles. I hope to share some insight and observations I have made as I made my journey from a clueless hearing individual to a more knowledgeable person and advocate of the Deaf.

deaf vs. Deaf

Many people do not realize that there is a difference between deaf (lowercase d) and Deaf (uppercase d). “deaf,” medically, refers to the state of not being able to hear. “Deaf,” on the other hand, is a term that is used to define one that is a part of a rich, vibrant culture. Being Deaf is to be a part of a minority like one may identify as Asian, Black, or Jewish. A person can be deaf but not personally identify as Deaf.

The Deaf community, like any other minority, has experienced hardships and struggles to be fully recognized as “fully human.” Our world is hearing centric. The majority view deafness as a disability when in reality it is not. A Deaf person can lead a completely normal life and do everything that a hearing person can do except perceive sound. Deaf people can communicate and use language through their hands and visual cues. They are capable of producing poetry, literature, play sports, take office, and so much more. They are not entirely helpless and only need fair access to an education that accommodates their needs, such as the use of ASL and other visual means.

Another critical thing to note is that the Deaf World consists of different communities. Not all Deaf individuals use ASL. Different countries have different sign languages. Comparing American Sign Language to British Sign Language is like comparing English to Spanish. Each language has their own set of grammatical rules and different signs. There is such a thing as “international sign,” but not all Deaf people learn it. Also, International Sign has a very limited lexicon and grammar which makes it hard to communicate complex ideas effectively.

The Do’s and Don'ts When Interacting with a Deaf Person

For some hearing people, finding out that someone is Deaf can lead to very awkward situations. Some examples include individuals raising their voice thinking that a deaf person can hear them better. No matter how loud you talk to a Deaf person, the fact remains that they cannot hear you. Other people may ignore or walk away from a deaf person and not even attempt to communicate with them.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when interacting with the Deaf:

1) Not all Deaf people can lipread – Here’s a little experiment you can try. Turn off the sound while watching a video and try interpreting what the people are saying. Not so easy, is it? People can talk fast or face away from a Deaf person and make lipreading hard. Speaking slowly and thoroughly articulating your words can help a Deaf individual skilled in lipreading interpret more words and better guesswork on what you are saying.

2) Use your cell phone or good old pen and paper – A better means of dialogue between hearing and deaf individuals is typing or writing things down. They are quite simple and effective means of communication.

3) Try your best to not stare/gawk at the Deaf – I get it, you may be fascinated by two individuals rapidly signing to one another and watching their expressive faces. But blatantly staring at two signers converse is equivalent to you walking up to two people talking and listening in on their conversation. It is quite rude.

4) Talk to the Deaf person and not to the interpreter – It is common courtesy to face and talk towards a person, hearing or deaf. Sometimes an interpreter is present to communicate with a Deaf person effectively. In this situation, continue to face the Deaf individual and talk towards them. Do not solely address and speak with the interpreter during the conversation. After all, you are trying to talk to the Deaf individual not the interpreter.

We Are All Human Beings

In the end, treat the Deaf like you would treat anyone else. We are all human. We are social creatures by nature and crave for interaction. Everyone deserves respect and dignity and Deaf people are just like anyone else and have feelings too.

To make an extra effort, you can learn some basic signs such as “hello,” “how are you?”, and “thank you.” You can make a Deaf person’s day if you try and put effort into communicating with them. So, don’t be afraid to interact with a Deaf person. I highly encourage those that are learning ASL to attend Deaf cultural events. You can always look up for the nearest Deaf club or association in your area. Attending Deaf events can be daunting, especially if you’re doing this alone, but immersing yourself in the Deaf community is the only way to improve your ASL skills.

I was so happy that decided to take the one year of ASL courses in college. It is truly an amazing journey to learn about Deaf culture and their beautiful language. I encourage you to read up on the history of the Deaf in your country. The Deaf are often overlooked and deserve more attention to their rights and needs.

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How to Interact with Deaf People
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