I was getting breakfast at McDonalds this morning and I started thinking, “Perhaps if I explained how, as a hearing impaired person, I was struggling with a situation, it could help people to better interact with deaf people.”
In this particular case, I was sitting at a table with my breakfast, waiting for the barista to finish making my coffee.
The screen with order numbers on it was broken. I was too far away to hear anything, so I was carefully watching the barista’s lips for my number; “one one five” or the name of my coffee; “soy mocha”.
I knew that my coffee was near because, as a deaf person, I collect as much visual evidence from my surroundings as I can. There was a carton of soy milk on the counter, which to me meant that it was time to watch extra closely.
In the end, she put a cup out and nobody claimed it. She said something that wasn’t my number and I asked “soy mocha”? She replied, “yes”.
A second or two later, my brain finished processing her earlier words. She’d said “one-fifteen”, which lip-reads entirely differently from “one-one-five”. Add to the challenge is that it was spoken by a person for whom English is a second language. These are additional barriers for deaf people – unusual traits, such as loose skin, partial facial paralysis or a tendency to speak out of the side of their mouth.
The Clues Deaf People Use
I got my coffee, so it was a happy ending but it also reminded me that this was a “teachable moment”. People who often interact with deaf people assume that lip reading is a precise science but it’s not.
It’s important to realise that a person who is relying heavily on lip-reading has to go through the process of mentally fitting dozens of combinations into your sentences. It takes a bit of time and it means that we’re sometimes slow on the uptake.
Lip Reading Barriers
Accents, beards and lisps can significantly change the way that people speak. The vocabulary used has a major impact and so does the context. A small change in the words we use can mean a giant difference to a deaf person.
Finishing the Sentence
Siblings and married couples often finish each other’s sentences. For our partners, sometimes it’s funny and sometimes it’s annoying but this is a critically important skill for deaf person. Guessing the second half of a sentence based on the first makes it so much easier to keep up with conversations. Unfortunately, as we become older and more experienced at this, we often fall into the trap of speaking the second half of the sentence before they’ve finished speaking. It can cause relationship issues.
Excuses for Deaf People
“What?” Only Goes So Far
One of the worst things for a deaf person is dealing with a person who is extremely difficult to understand. You quickly learn as a child that asking “what?” all the time will make people angry, so you start by varying your words; using What? Pardon? Huh? and Sorry? to try to keep things “fresh”.
Limits and “Oh, OK”
You also realise that there’s a limit to the number of times that people will repeat things. In my case, I draw the line at three. If I’ve asked someone to repeat something twice already, I’ll generally give up on the third by saying “oh okay” which is often enough to make people go away.
Sometimes it backfires. Sometimes people are asking me to do things that never get done. Sometimes they’re telling me about something important, such as a death in the family. When they’re expecting an empathetic response, “oh okay” doesn’t really work.
Repetition Not Always Key
One of things I wish we could teach people is that repeating the same phrase over and over simply doesn’t make it any easier to hear. Changing the words will often make it much easier to lip-read.
A Little More Context Please
Additionally, sometimes you have to give deaf people a little more context. For example, if someone is in the middle of talking to me about a computer problem at work and then says, “my auntie died today”, I’ll struggle to convert those lipread words into something relevant to their computer problem. It’s extremely difficult for deaf people to realise that you’ve “switched gears” in the middle of a conversation.
Silver Bullets for Deaf People – Not
The final thing that is frustrating for a deaf person is when people ask me why I don’t just use sign language or why I don’t wear hearing aids. It’s as if they think these things are silver bullets. They’re not.
Sign language is only useful if both parties know it. It varies enough from place to place that it’s not in any way “exact”.
Hearing aids serve to make things louder, not always clearer. If you experience problems with specific frequencies or you can’t hear certain sounds like “S” and “PP, making it louder isn’t going to help. It’s simply going to make all of the other sounds louder which is both annoying to the deaf person and sometimes quite painful.
We’re deaf. We’ve lived with it all our lives. Trust us. We’ve tried these things and if we’re not using them, then they’re not applicable to our personal situation.