How to Communicate With Deaf People

Deaf individuals communicate visually and physically rather than audibly. There are varying degrees of deafness: hard of hearing, "profoundly" deaf, and completely deaf.[1] You can often recognize the hard of hearing by their hearing aids (although of course some people refuse to wear them, or are unable to, and newer aids are becoming smaller and harder to see). Deaf or profoundly deaf people may wear no hearing aid at all. Some will be able to lip read and understand you nearly perfectly, however, many will communicate with (sign language) rather than with words. This visual way of communicating can be intimidating and seem strange at first, but these guidelines will help.


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    Get the other person's attention before attempting to talk or communicate. Making eye contact is a good way to do this. If needed, you can use a small wave or light touch to get the person's attention. While you should be considerate and not poke people, generally it is not considered rude in deaf communities to lightly touch people you do not know to get their attention. The shoulder is a good place to touch someone you don't know well; use a couple of short taps.[2]
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    Stay in their field of vision. Try to keep your eyes at the same level as their eyes (sit down if she's sitting, stand up if he's standing, compensate for a big difference in height, etc) and you should be a little further away than normal speaking distance[3] (3-6 feet, 1-2 meters). This helps to make sure they'll see all of your gestures. If you're indoors, make sure there's enough light for them to see you clearly. If you're outside, face the sun so that there isn't a shadow cast in your face and the sun doesn't glare in theirs.[3]
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    Speak your greeting in a normal voice and tone. Whispering or shouting will distort your lip movements, making it difficult for a deaf person to follow your words. (Many deaf people can lip read to a certain extent.) Similarly, if you exaggerate your mouth movements you will be harder to understand than if you speak normally. Increasing the volume only helps if the person is hard of hearing, and it has the negative effect of drawing attention from other people around you, making the person you are addressing feel self-conscious. If they do not seem to be able to lip read, you may need to communicate with a notepad and pen. Write your name, greeting, and introduction.
    • If you have lots of facial hair, it may be harder for a deaf person to lip read.[4]
    • Many hard of hearing people who can understand you perfectly in a quiet room will be unable to do so in, say, a noisy restaurant or wherever the background noise is high.
    • Don't place anything in or around your mouth (chewing gum, your hands, etc).
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    Establish the gist of what you are going to talk about. Once they know the general topic, it is easier for them to follow your conversation. Don't change the subject suddenly; even the best lip readers can understand only about 35 percent of what you are saying and must guess the rest in the context of the topic.[4] Pause often and ask if they are following you.
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    Make eye contact. You probably don't realize how much you communicate through your eyes and facial expressions. If you have sunglasses on, take them off. If you can add facial expressions to emphasize a point (smiling, rolling your eyes, raising your eyebrows) do so.
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    Use gestures and visual cues. Point to or hold up any items that you're talking about, and wait until they're looking at you again before you resume speaking. You can also mimic actions, like drinking or jumping or eating, to illustrate your words. Hold up fingers to indicate numbers, scribble in the air to show you're writing a letter, and similar.
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    Be polite. If there is an interruption that the deaf person may not notice, such as the phone ringing or a knock on the door, explain why you are stepping away. Don't make jokes about their hearing (or lack thereof). Don't suddenly refuse to communicate (such as saying "never mind") after you find out that they are deaf. Don't express your irritation when there is a need to repeat yourself. Allow for differences of opinion, just as you would with a hearing friend. Just as there are good and bad hearing people, there are also good and bad deaf people. Treat them courteously, and you'll be on a decent footing.
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    Learn sign language For full communication with deaf people who are more comfortable signing than speaking, learn sign language. Sign languages are natural languages, with their own grammar and syntax; for example, the English phrase "I give to you" is one word (or "sign") in American Sign Language (ASL). Most countries have their own national sign languages. They are quite distinct to spoken languages and generally do not follow the same geographic distribution (for example, British Sign Language is very different from ASL). Many local colleges, universities and local deaf organizations offer classes for all levels of learners.


  • Sign languages like ASL are a separate language from the spoken counterpart, like American English, with their own rules, grammatical structures, and tenses. They are not simply signed English; English cannot be translated word-for-word into sign language. Many deaf people will understand what you are saying if you sign English to them, but it is tedious to do so. If you are exchanging notes with a deaf person, he or she may not add articles to sentences (like "a," "the," or "and") and may leave out other words or arrange words in what seems to you to be an incorrect grammatical structure. This is because they are translating a visual language (ASL) into a different language (English, for example) and translations are never direct.
  • When speaking to a deaf person who can lip read, remain facing them. This may seem obvious, but many people who can hear will turn their heads away during conversation. This makes it more difficult for the person to follow what you're saying.
  • Remember that deaf people are normal people. Do not assume that just because someone is deaf, he or she will need your help. If you are with someone who is deaf, let them ask you for help.
  • It takes time to get to know the new friend, as with every new friendship. Deaf people are no different. Take your time and don't presume too much too soon. Patience is the most important thing in the world if you want to build strong relationships.
  • Cell phones capable of text messaging/SMS are an excellent tool if you don't have a pen and paper. You can enter what you wish to say on the phone and show it to a deaf person. Many deaf people also use cell phones for text-based communication.
  • Exchange email address or chat room identity. Most deaf individuals use the Internet to communicate just as hearing people call on the phone to chat.
  • Write what you want to say down on a piece of paper. This way, if they cannot understand what you are trying to say, show them the paper, so that way they will read it, since most deaf people can read.
  • Some deaf people do have a hearing aid, so you may not have to do as many hand gestures with them. Instead, speak in a normal tone of voice, and at medium speed.


  • Never assume that doctors and audiologists are an authority on deaf people. They are there to provide a physical judgement and do not create the best source for educational options or intervention options.
  • Do not assume that all deaf people can read lips. Every deaf person is different, so some may be able to read lips, while some may not.
  • Do not assume that all deaf people can learn voicing. As said above, every deaf person is different.
  • Deaf people often think of Cochlear Implants (CI's) as bad. Avoid referring to a CI as a fix or cure. There is none.
  • Never assume that a deaf person is also mentally disabled. While some are, some simply are just deaf, so they just cannot hear.
    • Some Deaf people are mentally disabled, but they are still deserving of respect and dignity.
  • Deaf people as a cultural group are very blunt, and are not afraid to call it as they see it. An unwritten rule in the deaf culture is "if you can see it, you can comment on it." So do not take a deaf person's bluntness personally -- they do not mean to offend. It is simply acceptable in their culture to make comments like "you are bigger than last time I saw you" or other comments that would be considered rude in conversation.[5]

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