Welcoming the Hearing Loss Community — Part 2

In Part 1, of this three-part series, guest author Lucy Crabtree shared her experience with hearing loss and struggle to find a place in the local church. In this second post, she offers practical advice for loving your neighbors in the hearing loss community. 

— Part 2 —

As I concluded in Part 1, we Christians have an opportunity to honor the imago dei and respect the dignity of all people by communicating respectfully and appropriately with people with hearing loss. In interpersonal communication, one way to show this honor and respect is by asking a simple question: “What’s the best way for me to communicate with you?”

I learned recently that one of my Deaf friends’ pet peeves is when hearing people ask her if she can lip read. The question assumes that my friend will do all the work to communicate when communication really requires something from both parties. Plus, not everyone who is d/Deaf or hard of hearing is a lip reader. Even the most experienced lip readers only get about 30% of the message through lip reading – the rest of it is context clues. Lip reading is like playing Wheel of Fortune, trying to fill in the gaps based on the little information already there.

I’m the opposite of my friend, and I have mixed feelings when hearing people—however well-meaning—ask me if I can sign. Usually they ask because they want to show me the few signs they know. On one hand, I’m encouraged they want to make a connection. On the other hand, I can lip read, and I’m discouraged that they only want to connect with me their way. I get it. Signing is sexy, and lip reading isn’t, but no one ever accused me of being sexy.

American Sign language (ASL) is a full and complete language distinct from English, with its own grammar and syntax. ASL is not my first language and I’m fluent in English, so voicing is often the most efficient way for me to communicate with hearing people. Furthermore, of the 37.5 million people with hearing loss, only a small percentage are native ASL users. Statistically speaking, you’re more likely to meet someone who is deaf or hard of hearing who doesn’t sign or who prefers not to.

While it might seem sensible to ask a new d/Deaf or hard of hearing acquaintance, “Do you lip read?” or “Do you know sign language?” a better question is simply: “What’s the best way for me to communicate with you?”

Even if the person with hearing loss asks you to speak up a little or to slow down, take care not to shout or over-enunciate. Avoid turning away or covering your mouth. Maintain eye contact, even if the person you’re talking to is not a lip reader. Eye contact is important, and they may be using context clues to help them follow conversation (for example, seeing your facial expression clues them in to your tone, which can help them make better sense of the topic).

Talk to the person with hearing loss, not to their interpreter or companion. Many an eye roll has been exchanged between my interpreters and me when someone says to my interpreter about me, “Can you ask her if …?” or “Tell her I said …” Just talk to the d/Deaf or hard of hearing person directly; the interpreter is there to facilitate communication as unobtrusively as possible.

Clear the table of obstructions—move tall centerpieces or condiments to the side so you can see each other easily.

Let the person with hearing loss sit with their back to the window or other source of light. If you sit in front of the window, your face will be backlit and they can’t see you as well.

As much as it’s in your ability to do so, keep background noise to a minimum. Pick quiet restaurants, or find a less crowded space at a party for your conversation. Open your home for socializing in small groups. An acquaintance from church invited me to her house recently, for board games and dessert, and invited one other person as well. Without the hum and clatter of a coffeehouse and with only two other people around, I had a much easier time following and engaging in conversation with them.

Be patient. You may have to repeat yourself more than once, or think fast and rephrase your comment. Sometimes rephrasing makes a light bulb go off for me. A few years ago, I met up with some family friends for pizza. When I arrived, one of their children was standing by the gumball machine and she kept asking me for something, but I couldn’t make sense of her question. My mom was nearby and explained that she was asking for money for the gumball machine, and suggested our young friend try the word “quarter” instead of “money,” or gesture to make herself understood.

Write it down. Have a pen and paper nearby to jot down tricky sentences, or use your Notes app on your smartphone to quickly type out what you’re saying. I was in a movie theater once with a hearing date, but the lights were dim and I couldn’t understand him, despite his best efforts to communicate. Finally, he pulled out his phone and typed out what he was trying to say—something about how where we were sitting was better for his knee. I appreciated his commitment to making sure I knew what he was trying to communicate, especially when so many people would have given up and said “never mind.”

Fight the temptation to say “never mind” or “it doesn’t matter,” even if it means repeating yourself again or rephrasing your comment. Information is our most prized commodity and withholding it, even when you feel the content is relatively inconsequential, can be a form of oppression. Withholding content robs the person with hearing loss of the autonomy to do what they want with the information.

Hearing loss is not a monolithic experience, and some of the tips I’ve listed here work for me but may not work for someone else. When in doubt, simply ask the person with hearing loss how you can best communicate with them, and follow their lead.

In Part 3, Lucy shares practical ways to include the hearing loss community in your local church.

picture of author Lucy Crabtree

Lucy Crabtree lives in the Kansas City area, where she advocates for communication access for people with hearing loss. A former English major (and she won’t let you forget it), Lucy writes about disability, singleness, church, gospel, and one-anothering on her blog (sometimes) and Twitter (often). You can follow her at @tolivequietly.

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