How to Communicate with Deaf and Hard of Hearing People When You Don’t Know Sign Language

Guest Author: Kristy Ramos, Director, CSD Works


Imagine living in a world where everyone spoke a different language than you, even your own family. You’d be unable to eavesdrop on conversations while waiting in line for coffee. You’d find it difficult to order a meal or call and change a plane ticket. Your parents and siblings would joke around at the dinner table and laugh uproariously, and you’d be left wondering what they said that was so funny.

Sounds terrible, doesn’t it?

Deaf and hard of hearing people experience this every day. Far too many deaf children grow up watching their parents revolve around them like planets in orbit- visible, but distant. Fast food workers refuse to give deaf people service at the drive-through window. Calling the bank, an airline, or the electric company usually results in being hung up on. Imagine how frustrating that must be.

Now imagine what it feels like when communication works. When someone finishes a sentence for you. When you’re at the world’s most boring party and you’d rather be at home watching Netflix, and you lock eyes with your date across the room and the next thing you know, they’re off the sofa and saying, “Thank you so much for having us, but I think it’s time for us to head out.”

woman smiling while pointing as the words

Even sending someone the perfect GIF at the perfect moment – it’s not about the words, it’s about what you’re communicating.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson looking surprised as the words

Effective communication is fun and easy when you don’t think too hard about it, and it brings people together.

Teenagers at school putting their hands in a circle and cheering as they break their group

But every now and again, life throws you a curveball. You’re in mid-conversation and suddenly you don’t know the word you’re looking for, but it’s right there. You forget your lines. You meet someone who speaks a different language and suddenly you’re not sure what to do. If you just take a breath to reassess the situation, usually you pick up the slack and keep right on going.

Often, people who are not deaf and do not know American Sign Language think that communicating with deaf people is hard.

Woman running around franticly as the words

The reality is, deaf and hard of hearing people have to overcome communication barriers all the time. If there was a communication Olympics, deaf people would be gold medalists. We can all learn from deaf people on how to communicate – and that’s even more important in today’s world of social media. Failure to communicate can be at best embarrassing or detrimental to your brand, and at worst, illegal because it violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

But don’t worry! If you follow the three easy steps found below, you can avoid negative communication experiences and create a space for positive cross-cultural, inclusive and authentic interactions with all your customers and employees – hearing and deaf alike.

1.      Don’t panic! Someone suddenly asking you a question in a language that you don’t understand? There’s no need to awkwardly shrug and walk away.

Deaf Pro-Tip: A deaf customer at a restaurant does not need a braille menu and they won’t start hearing what you’re saying if you JUST SAY IT A LITTLE LOUDER. Instead, smile, get the person’s attention, and gesture to them or write a note. You can even grab your smart phone (you have one of those, right?) and type a note. Google Translate FTW.

2.      Be prepared. Batman had his utility belt; Inspector Gadget had his, well, gadgets. With a few simple tools, you’ll be able to tackle any communication challenge that comes your way.

Deaf Pro-Tip: Have a pen and paper on hand at all times, whether you need to draw someone a map or create an elaborate stick figure diagram explaining the fall of the Roman empire. Have printed materials where possible – menus, directions, answers to frequently asked questions – and make sure they’re visible. Have signs pointing to bathrooms, exits, and other high-traffic areas in your place of business.

3.      It’s a tango. Not sure what to do? Stop, take a breath, and let the other person lead. Chances are, they can carry on the “conversation” until you’re ready to jump in again.

Deaf Pro-Tip: This may be your first time interacting with a deaf customer/co-worker, but it certainly isn’t their first time to interact with someone who’s ASL-impaired. Offer the use of a pen and some paper, maintain eye contact, and follow their lead. Deaf people might want to write, they might want to point, they might want to voice, they might want to use an interpreter … who knows! There are lots of ways to communicate while deaf!

Communicating with deaf and hard of hearing people when you don’t use ASL may be a little intimidating at first, but rest assured: if you remain open, receptive and committed to communication, your deaf customers and employees will lead you to a successful and positive interaction. 

Extra Credit:

·         Learn some basic sign language! You can say “Donde esta la bano?” you can learn how to sign “Have a nice day!” “Thank you.” “Good morning!” and “Can I help you?” Check out Lifeprint and Dr. Bill Vicars on Youtube for a TON of great (and free!) ASL tutorials/lessons.

·         Check out these free eGuides at Discover tips for how to use interpreters, understanding the ADA, engaging deaf and hard of hearing employees, and understanding accommodations.