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Communicating with People Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

To communicate with people who are Deaf or hard of hearing, you might wonder if you need to know sign language. And it’s true that sign language is a great way to communicate with some people. But sign language is just one communication tool and isn’t how all people who are Deaf or hard of hearing prefer to communicate. So it’s always a good idea to start by learning what you can about the specific person with whom you want to connect.

Understanding the types of deafness and hearing impairment

There are differences between a person who is “deaf,” “Deaf,” or “hard of hearing.” The deaf and hard of hearing community is diverse. There are variations in the cause and degree of hearing loss, age of onset, educational background, communication methods, and how individuals feel about their hearing loss. 

How people label or identify themselves is personal and may reflect identification with the deaf and hard of hearing community, the degree to which they can hear, or the relative age of onset. 

For example, some people identify themselves as “late-deafened,” indicating that they experienced a loss of hearing later in life. Other people identify themselves as “deaf-blind,” which usually indicates that they have some degree of hearing loss and some degree of vision loss. Some people believe that the term “people with hearing loss” is inclusive and efficient. 

People who are Deaf (uppercase “D”) sometimes identify themselves as a separate language and cultural group and do not consider themselves to have a disability. Over the years, the most commonly accepted terms have come to be “deaf,” “Deaf,” and “hard of hearing” (National Association of the Deaf).

Tips for communication with someone who has hearing loss or impairment

  • Speak clearly (without overemphasizing) without rushing through or speaking too quickly. Short sentences are generally better for understanding and accessibility.
  • Reduce background noise where possible. Close doors and turn off the television, music, or radio if those could interfere.
  • Face the listener.
  • Give the listener a clear view of your face. This allows the person to see expressions and read speech if that is how they access communication or if it helps them do so.
  • Keep hands or other objects down. Don’t chew gum.
  • Allow adequate light to fall on your face. Do not stand in front of a window or light source. 
  • Avoid talking while writing or walking.
  • Gain the person’s attention before beginning to speak. Say the listener’s name at the beginning of the sentence.
  • Minimize interruptions.
  • Provide contextual clues for conversation topics.
  • If sound amplification technology is available in group settings, use it! Do not ask if anyone needs amplification or ask for the group to vote. It will be helpful for everyone. Questions asked without a microphone should be repeated by someone with a microphone.
  • If possible, provide sign language interpretation alongside speakers, in group settings, for church services, etc.
  • In cases of possible misunderstanding, ask the person to repeat themselves and repeat back what you understand. In a group setting, repeat any questions asked before beginning with answers.
  • Write down key words to advance mutual understanding.
  • Arrange seating in small groups, preferably in circles or at round tables. Offer an alternative location for individuals with hearing loss. If groups are encouraged to pray aloud, offer an alternative location as an accommodation for full participation.
  • In large meetings, ask speakers to provide outlines.
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