Ten ways to boost your communication skills with someone who is deaf

Tips and techniques for better communication with people who are deaf

Teacher and student sitting at a table and signing to each other

ASL is a language all its own and a great way to communicate with someone who is deaf and also signs.

February 6, 2015

Helen Keller once said, “Blindness separates us from things, but deafness separates us from people.” Perkins provides services to many people who have both vision and hearing loss, and our educators and experts know that having an effective conversation with any individual is easier when you are genuinely engaged and show respect. By following these tips, you too can more effectively and gracefully communicate with people who are deaf.

  1. Secure the person’s attention. Make sure you have the person’s full attention before you start to speak, otherwise they may miss part of what you’re saying. You can do this with a wave or a light touch on the shoulder.
  2. Face the person. Look directly at the person you are talking to and maintain eye contact, even if they have an interpreter who translates your speech into sign language. You are having a conversation with them; the interpreter is simply a facilitator. Also, don’t walk away or turn while you are speaking.
  3. If the person can read lips, keep the light in front of you. If you’re standing in front of a sunny window, or if a bright light is behind you, your face will be in shadow. That makes it harder for someone who is deaf to see your lips, facial expressions and other conversational cues. If necessary, move so you face the light.
  4. If the person does not understand you, rephrase your message instead of repeating it. Speaking loudly doesn’t necessarily help, as louder volume can distort words. You can also use pen and paper to enhance understanding.
  5. Use body language and facial expression to augment your message. But don’t exaggerate or overemphasize lip movement.
  6. Use your mouth only for talking. Gum chewing, smoking or even nibbling on a pencil while talking makes it more difficult to see your lips and therefore what you’re saying. Likewise, keep your hands away from your mouth.
  7. If the person has some hearing, try to eliminate background noises like televisions or music. If you’re in a group, make sure only one person is talking at a time. If there are multiple conversations going on it can be difficult for someone who is hard of hearing to follow, so try to have one general conversation instead of multiple conversations.
  8. Don’t assume the person knows sign language just because they’re deaf. There are many ways for people who are hard of hearing to communicate. Sign language is only one of them. You can ask what type of communication method they prefer.
  9. If the phone rings or there is some other interruption, let them know. Someone who is completely deaf may not notice the interruption and may be unaware of what distracted you. Keep them in the loop.
  10. Include them in conversations, even if it takes more effort. The joy of humanity is connecting with other people. So even if it takes a little time or extra effort, bring someone who is deaf into the conversation. You might learn something interesting.

Thanks to The Red Notebook website and Hearing Loss Association of America., Inc. for these communication tips.

Kelsey Bronski is a marketing and sales coordinator at Perkins Solutions.

Infographic: 10 tips to boost your deaf communication skills.

Read more about: Advocacy, Deafblind, In the Community