Understanding how to communicate with Deaf individuals is a life skill every hearing person should be well acquainted with. Whether you’ve encountered a Deaf person in the workplace or simply in daily life, knowing how to communicate effectively and respectfully is crucial for ensuring all parties involved feel welcomed and comfortable. Employing these simple methods can be pivotal in bridging the gap between the general hearing world and the Deaf world.
When I took my first ASL class, the first thing we were taught was how to get a Deaf person’s attention. You should never go up to a Deaf person and shake/clap a hand on their shoulder to get their attention. It is both startling and incredibly disrespectful. Rather, always make sure the Deaf person can see you when you are approaching them. Walk around them, face-to-face, or stand next to them and gently tap their shoulder. Another fact everyone should know is that when your body loses one of its senses, the other senses are strengthened and become more sensitive. As such, Deaf people respond well to vibrations or flashing lights. One of the best and most respectful ways to get a Deaf person’s attention is by stomping on the floor to create vibrations or flickering the lights. The light-flickering method works particularly well if you have several Deaf people in one room. I’ve also observed that Deaf people wave their hands at each other to grab attention. Note: do not flail your arms — simply wave as you would to a friend that you’re passing on the street.
Another point I want to make on this matter is that, if you walk into a room of Deaf people, the majority of them will turn and look at you as you enter. They are not judging you; they are simply highly perceptive. Moreover, when you walk into a room of Deaf people, you should introduce yourself to everyone in the room if they are willing to conversationalize. Deaf people are typically very sociable within their community; and since you are entering their community, they naturally want to know who you are.
If you do not know sign language, you should always use pen and paper. Pen and paper is the easiest method for a hearing person to communicate with a Deaf person. While some Deaf people are skilled at lip-reading, hearing people tend to exaggerate their lips (which is incredibly unhelpful and offensive). I cannot stress this enough, if you are using lip-reading as a method of communication with a Deaf person, do not exaggerate your words. Speak slowly and normally. In the workplace, I would suggest that you learn how to say basic greetings, such as “Hello! One moment, please. I will grab a pen and paper.” This small gesture could make a world of difference for a Deaf person, as ordering at restaurants (for example) is incredibly frustrating sometimes.
At this point, I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’m capitalizing the letter “D” in Deaf. This has a very significant meaning — uppercase “D” Deaf people are those who embrace their community and culture fully, thus employing sign language as their primary form of communication. Lowercase “d” deaf people are those who do not participate in deaf culture but still have an audiological condition. Here is a wonderful article that explains the difference in greater detail!
If you would like to learn some basic signs (which I strongly encourage), I would suggest checking out Handspeak, Lifeprint, or Signing Savvy.