Healthy living

Deaf Awareness Week: 'Look At Me'

Deaf Awareness Week:  look at me 'Our ears may be wonky but our brains work just fine'

Think 'communicating with the deaf' and you probably think 'sign language'.

But while it’s true that a great number of hearing impaired people use this technique, it’s not the only way to converse with a deaf person.

In fact, you don’t have to be a signing expert to interact well with someone who finds it hard to hear.

That’s why, for Deaf Awareness Week (May 7-13), the UK’s leading hearing loss charities are running a campaign called ‘Look At Me’.

The message? A few simple steps can remove the barriers preventing deaf people from communicating effectively in every arena, from shops to doctors’ surgeries, restaurants or at work.

As the UK Council on Deafness points out, nearly 15 per cent of the population of the UK – that’s nine million people – is deaf or hard of hearing, including 30,000 children under the age of 16.

Yet despite this there remain serious issues of access. For instance, nearly 70 per cent of people who use British Sign Language (BSL) as their first language say they have asked for an interpreter to be booked for a GP appointment, but did not get one.

As Jackie Ballard, chief executive of Action on Hearing Loss, says: ‘This is a basic issue of human rights.’

The charity has this week launched a petition calling on local healthcare providers to use only properly qualified interpreters at

Meanwhile, in daily life, many people and employers are often unaware or confused about how best to reach those with loss of hearing.

So what are the top tips to best communication – and, if you run a business or public service, what can you do to improve provision?

Don’t Make Assumptions

As the Royal Association for Deaf People notes: “Don’t assume that because a deaf person is wearing hearing aids, he can hear what you are saying. He may only be able to hear particular sounds or background noise”.

Similarly, don’t expect a hearing aid to be the primary sign of deafness. Deafness is often referred to as the ‘invisible disability’ as there may be no visual clues: profoundly deaf people may not wear aids at all.

How Can You Tell?

Hearing aids aside, there are several behaviours that may indicate a person is deaf or suffers loss of hearing. For instance, a deaf person’s speech might sound a little strange, louder than the norm or words may be pronounced in an odd way. Turning up the TV or radio to high volume can also be an indication of hearing impairment, as can frequent requests for repetition of what has been said.

How Can I Get Their Attention?

Don’t stand behind the person shouting, for a start. Eye contact is vital: establish this by tapping them gently on the shoulder or gently waving. From a distance, it is acceptable to use vibration or light, says charity Hearing Dogs for Deaf People – for instance, when entering a large room, you could stamp the floor or flick a light switch to let them know you are there.

How Do I Communicate?

The first and easiest way to know how best to communicate is to follow the deaf person’s lead. If they are asking you a question using their voice, it is safe to assume that they will be expecting to lip read your reply.

10 Rules of Lip reading

  1. Face the person

  2. Keep eye contact

  3. Speak clearly, at a normal pace

  4. Do not shout

  5. Ensure there are no bright lights behind you that could make it difficult to see your face

  6. Use whole sentences, not one word replies – lip reading is 70 per cent guesswork. Using sentences gives contextual clues

  7. Minimise background noise, such as radio or TV, or visual noise such as moving wall displays

  8. Use facial expressions to help convey meaning

  9. Use hand gestures to help explain – for example back up directions by pointing

  10. If there is more than one person speaking, take turns to talk: do not speak over the other person

Don’t Patronise

As blogger Ian Noon, who has been profoundly deaf since birth, writes at “As a child, one of the things that used to really rile me was people assuming that because I was deaf, I was dumb and stupid… I still detect sometimes a prejudice that deaf children are never going to achieve as well as other children.

“So my first and most important deaf awareness tip of the week is never to underestimate or patronise. Our ears may be wonky but our brains work just fine, thank you very much.”

Don’t Rush In

Lip reading is not an exact science: someone who uses lip reading relies on a whole host of visual clues. So, top tip: don’t rush in with a non sequitur, even if you are enunciating clearly and slowly. In other words, don’t jump from talking about lunch to “Man City’s goal was amazing yesterday – did you see them thrash Man U?” Instead, think about context and kick off with something like: “Did you see the football yesterday?”

Don’t Parrot

As deaf campaigner Ian Noon adds: “If I don’t understand the context, chances are that I’m going to have major problems understanding what’s being said. Which is why I get incredibly annoyed when, if I don’t understand something, people insist on just repeating themselves verbatim. Again. And again. And again.”

Instead, try explaining what you want to say in a different way, rephrasing it or tracking back and explaining the context.

Try Something Else

If you’re not managing to express yourself, don’t give up: try texting it on your mobile phone, writing it down on a piece of paper, pointing or even using hand gestures. Remember the mantra: ‘Repeat, Re-phrase, Write it down’.

Just Ask

If unsure, just ask. Someone who is deaf or hard of hearing would much rather be asked about their level of impairment and how best to communicate than ignored out of some misguided sense that you may cause offence or confusion. This applies as much, if not more, to deaf children as adults: remember, a child will no doubt lack confidence and more so if they struggle to understand you. So don’t back off: just ask.

At Work

Some key things to consider in the workplace:

  • Do you have a working (and regularly checked) induction loop fitted in customer service areas?
  • Offer a range of contact options for your organisation – not just a phone number
  • Ensure you have good signage to direct people where to go
  • In meetings ask the deaf person where the best place is for them to sit
  • Know where to hire a BSL interpreter if needed – see NRCPD
  • Consider BSL training for staff: visit Action on Hearing Loss or DeafWise

For more information and advice see: Deaf Council

This article was published on Tue 8 May 2012

Image © Fotolia

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