Today is the last day of Deaf Awareness Week 2013, so it’s time to look at how you can be more Deaf aware.
First of all, to gain the attention of a deaf person, tap them lightly on the shoulder and then wait for them to look at you. If you need to gain the attention of a roomful of deaf people, flash the lights, and wait for them to look at you.
That’s great. You’ve got their attention. Now what?
Contrary to popular misconception, not all deaf people can lipread. Lipreading is a skill, and it’s actually incredibly difficult. Stand in front of a mirror and say, “cot dot hot lot not”. Can you tell the difference between them? It’s not easy is it? Now imagine that you are trying to follow a whole conversation just by watching someone’s lips. Some Deaf people I know are very good at it – my old BSL teacher was so good she could lipread from the side! – but others find it difficult or impossible, so don’t assume that they can. If you know that the person you are talking to can lipread, make it easier for them. Always stand in good light. Never stand with your back to a window as this puts your whole face in shadow and makes it difficult to distinguish your features.
Be aware that not all deaf people can read or write. Of course these skills are taught in schools, but they are not easy to learn. For most of us, we learn our first language purely by being exposed to it. We hear our parents and wider family speaking it. We hear it on the TV or radio. We hear it spoken in shops when our parents take us out in prams or pushchairs. Imagine if you hadn’t had that exposure. Imagine if you had to learn to read without having any idea what sounds the letters made. Would you have found it so easy?
For many Deaf people, English is not even their first language – those born into Deaf families may have BSL as their first language. Think about what your school life would have been like if your parents spoke English, and then when you went to school your teachers spoke only Chinese, and all your books were written in Chinese. It’s really not surprising that some deaf children leave school without being able to read or write.
In short, don’t assume that you can communicate with a deaf person by speaking slowly for them to lipread, or by writing things down.
So, what can you do? How about learning some BSL? Many adult education centres offer a short (about 6 weeks) introductory course for just a few pounds, where you will learn the basics such as fingerspelling,numbers and introducing yourself. You could also follow @BritishSignBSL on Twitter to learn one new sign a day. Once you have a few signs under your belt, have a go, and don’t be afraid to mime things to get your point across.