How to Approach a Deaf Individual: An Etiquette Guide for the Hearing World

ASL Program
July 20, 2022

How to Approach a Deaf Individual: An Etiquette Guide for the Hearing World

Have you ever felt like you wanted to approach a deaf person but was unsure about the proper etiquette? Have you ever interacted with a deaf person but it didn’t go how you wanted it to? The Deaf community, to a new signer or hearing individual, can be quite the foreign experience, especially when you’ve had minimal interactions with deaf people previously. Here are some pointers to keep in mind when approaching a deaf individual. This will also help you feel more confident to successfully interact with any member of the Deaf Community.

 

  1. Get their attention using visual and physical cues 

(A gif of a girl wearing glasses writing at her desk, and an arm reaches through a portal to tap her shoulder)

While it may not apply to all, deaf individuals usually do not respond to their spoken name in various settings. Additionally, deaf people rely on visual and physical cues for attention. To make your presence known, a simple tap on the shoulder or another visual signal like a wave is appropriate. Waving is usually a good initial option because if you don’t know the person, they may not like being touched. Once you get to know the individual, discuss with them what they prefer, as visual cues may vary. 

  1. Speak clearly and at a normal pace

(A gif of a Black man wearing a purple suit speaking into a microphone, saying “Am I speaking clearly?”)

Shouting has never been an appropriate form of communication indoors, so if you’re not outdoors or on a battlefield please refrain from doing it.  Also over-enunciation is counterproductive, as it actually makes it more difficult to lip read, and drags the conversation on longer than it needs to happen. So please, speak at a normal volume and speed and the deaf individual will appreciate it immensely.

Keep in mind, novice signers can have trouble switching between speaking to signing. When a deaf person lets a hearing person know they can read lips, you may feel tempted to speak all the way. In no way, shape, or form can lip reading fully replace sign language. Be aware that even if a deaf individual permits you to speak in lieu of signing, this form of communication is notorious by a great majority of people in the Deaf community because lip reading can become a gateway for the hearing individual not learning to sign or communicating visually. 

  1. Do not cover your mouth or look around while speaking

(A a gif of a red man focusing on the eyes of a doll with blonde hair) 

If you’ve found yourself interacting with a deaf person who is fine with you speaking instead of signing, make sure you’re completely facing them and never allow anything to cover your mouth (especially if that happens to be your hand). If you find yourself doing this, take pause. It’s often seen as a sign of disrespect as it blocks the person’s ability to understand your speech. If you’ve caught yourself doing this, ask the deaf person how much they understood and then clarify from there if anything was missed. Asking questions also helps the conversation be more engaging, so that can be seen as a win! However, remember to be respectful of their privacy, and avoid asking questions that are too personal, as you would with any other person.

  1. Repeat and rephrase if necessary

(A gif of a group of people in white aprons, with a man on the far right saying “Sorry can you repeat that?”)

Trying to say the same thing in a different way might be helpful to you in the long run. If you notice the deaf person asking you to repeat yourself (perhaps more than once), try expressing your thought rephrased. Communication is a two way street, and this practice will make the deaf person feel comfortable to ask for clarification. Patience is key and would be appreciated from the deaf individuals you’re interacting with. Not all deaf people are on the same level hearing wise or lip reading wise, they may also not process what you say differently, so be patient and do your best to meet their needs in the conversation.

  1. Do not be afraid to use pen and pencil or texting as a tool

(A gif of a black man in an orange jacket sitting down using a pen and paper)

-Confidence is something that some new signers struggle with and not wanting to fail in front of someone is understandable, so make it easy on yourself and write what you need to say. There’s no shame in trying to communicate via writing, human beings have been doing it forever. And if you don’t have a pen and paper, use your phone. As long as you’re trying to get the message conveyed, the deaf person will be appreciative.

  1. Keep a respectable distance

(A gif of a puppet in the face of a bald white man, asking what personal space is)

Some individuals have the misconception that speaking closer to a deaf person will make the speech more comprehensible. Often this just creates an awkward, inefficient conversation. Make sure you’re talking from an appropriate distance, because there is nothing more unsettling than having your boundaries crossed by a new person you just met. This type of behavior will not get you to become friends with anyone, let alone a deaf person.

  1. Use visual aids, gestures, and body language when appropriate

(A gif of a white woman making different faces using his hands to show how to make a more expressive facial expression)

As a signer, it’s very important that you’re aware that visual expression is one of the most important ways of communication through all forms of sign language. Visual aids, gestures and body language are paramount. If you appear as if you’re trying to express yourself, there is a chance deaf people will engage with you more. Use your environment as well as your ingenuity to tell stories and communicate what you need to say. In the very beginning, a lot of novice signers end up gaining more knowledge of different signs when they try to be as visual as possible.

  1. Be respectful 

(A gif of a small child in all black winter apparel tipping his hat in the direction of the camera, the words on the hat’s panel reads “respect”) 

Treat a deaf person like you’d treat any other stranger you’re trying to get to know. Being rude or curt will get you nowhere and may also harm your chances with other deaf people, as our community is small. We always welcome new people in our community, and all we ask is for mutual respect. We look forward to meeting you!

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