Interacting with Deaf People

One thing that may surprise people who are not exposed to Deaf people is that many deaf do not really consider themselves to be disabled and are actually proud to be deaf. Some say they would not want to be able to hear if they had their choice. 1

Just imagine if aliens landed from outer space and were shocked to discover we couldn't see through walls with x-ray vision. Although the aliens might feel sorry for us, since we're so used to life without x-ray vision, most people would probably not think they're missing out just because they can't see through walls. Not all deaf people feel this way about being deaf, but many do.

Here are just a few tips to help people who are new to interacting with people who are deaf, as well as to introduce them to what is known as "Deaf culture" or "the Deaf world." Knowing how to better interact with each other can help us respect and understand one another and help bring together the Deaf world and the hearing world, which are really one world with many different people.

Just as you would not ask someone you are meeting for the first time if they have always been fat or other personal questions, remember it is generally inappropriate to ask deaf people how they became deaf or if they have always been deaf, at least when meeting them for the first time, unless the deaf person brings up the subject.

Don't worry about using such English terminology as "Did you hear about what happened?" or, "I bet you hear that a lot." Not only is this non-offensive to deaf people, but also if there is an interpreter interpreting such phrases, the deaf are familiar with this use of the English word "hear." Besides, if there is no interpreter, it's not like they'll hear it anyway.

One quick way to put up a barrier between yourself and Deaf people is to say you're too embarrassed to try to learn any sign except in private. Do not be afraid to try to use whatever sign language you know. Deaf people who sign will not be offended but rather very happy and excited to meet someone who is smart, outgoing, and culturally sensitive enough to know even just a couple signs. Since the majority of the population does not know sign language, they are happy to see someone they can communicate with, even if it's just saying "thank you".

Remember that not all deaf people use sign language. Some rely solely on reading lips. In such cases, remember that the deaf person must be able to see your mouth in order to understand what you are saying. They cannot understand what you are saying when you cover your mouth or if one of you has your back turned.

If you are having trouble communicating with a deaf person, remember you can usually resort to writing. Grab a pen and paper, a chalkboard, a computer, etc. Keep in mind that some deaf people do not have very good English because they have never clearly heard English and perhaps because their native language is sign language. One way to make communication easier as well as to start learning sign language is to learn how to finger spell the alphabet. Then you can at least spell out key words without having to find something to write on.


The medical definition of deafness is a physical condition in which a person has profound or severe hearing loss; the cultural view of being deaf is a person with varying degrees of hearing loss who interacts with the Deaf community. Often, when referring to being culturally Deaf, the word is capitalized, and when referring to people with hearing loss in general, it is not capitalized (as not all people with hearing loss interact with the Deaf community). Very few deaf people have been absolutely deaf without any perception of sound their whole lives. Many people who are "Deaf" by culture are medically "hard of hearing," meaning they have a certain degree of hearing ability. Refer to this comparison of the Medical & Cultural Views of Deafness.

It is generally not offensive to ask someone who is considered deaf if they are deaf or hard of hearing. However, some Deaf people understandably refrain from disclosing that they can hear some sound for fear their hearing counterparts will assume they can hear more than they actually do. A good rule of thumb is to assume the person cannot hear you unless the deaf person tells you they can.

Also, keep in mind that not all deaf people are mute. Some people become deaf after speaking their whole lives. Just because a person can speak does not mean they are not deaf.

Keep in mind that some deaf people may have a tendency to feel left out of conversations between hearing people. When talking in groups with deaf people present, continue to sign while talking even when you are not addressing the deaf person, or make sure continuous interpretation is provided. (Keep in mind also that not everyone who says they know sign language is a good interpreter.) Although this does not necessarily allow them to fully participate at the same pace of the conversation, the effort can mean a lot.

In turn, deaf people often at formal gatherings have a person "voice interpret" what they are signing for the benefit of people who do not sign, with the exception of some Deaf clubs who prefer no talking. This is a reciprocal courtesy with signing for the deaf when hearing people speak. However, although deaf people are generally considerate in making sure there is interpretation provided for those who do not sign, if no one voice interprets, you do not want to complain how that is unfair that you are left out of the conversation. Having lived with the same challenge in the hearing world, most deaf people would be unsympathetic to such complaints. However, usually if you simply ask for voice interpretation, they will be more than glad to have someone provide it. Just keep in mind that sometimes there is no one around who can voice interpret.

As mentioned before how many deaf people don't consider themselves to be disabled, one thing to avoid is expressing feeling sorry for deaf people. Of course, people don't mean to offend, and many deaf people will be gracious enough to excuse such patronizing. However, just as you would not appreciate someone complimenting you on being such an honest person despite your background or ethnicity, deaf people in general do not care to be told how great it is that they are outgoing, good church goers, smart, etc. despite their being deaf, nor do they like people telling them how sorry they are that they can't hear. Don't let worrying about offending deaf people preoccupy you though; just remember deaf people are pretty much like other people, and they just want to be treated the same as other people as much as possible.



© 1999 - 2024 F. C. Stamps, M.Ed.