This is the third part in a series of articles which raises awareness of commonly encountered disabilities and offers advice on how to interact with people with disabilities. We continue the series with a look at the disability etiquette surrounding those who are Deaf or hearing impaired.
This series is based on the disability etiquette material published by the United Spinal Association and is an opportunity for City Connect to promote the excellent charity work done by disability charities, in particular the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) and the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS). City Connect aims to help readers avoid disability discrimination by providing clear guidelines on disability etiquette.
People Who Are Deaf or Have a Hearing Loss
Sign Language is an entirely different language from English, with a syntax all its own. Speech reading (lip reading) is difficult for people who are Deaf if their first language is sign language because the majority of sounds in English are formed inside the mouth, and it’s hard to speech read a second language. People who are hard of hearing, however, communicate in English. They use some hearing but may rely on amplification and/or seeing the speaker’s lips to communicate effectively.
There is a range of communication preferences and styles among people with hearing loss that cannot be explained in this brief space. It is helpful to note that the majority of late deafened adults do not communicate with sign language do use English and may be candidates for writing and assistive listening devices to help improve communication. People with cochlear implants, like other people with hearing loss, will usually inform you what works best for them. Below are a few pointers that will help you avoid a faux pas.
- When the exchange of information is complex—such as during a job interview or doctor’s visit or when reporting a crime—the most effective way to communicate with a native signer is through a qualified sign language interpreter. For a simple interaction—such as ordering in a restaurant or registering for a hotel room—writing back and forth is usually okay.
- Follow the person’s cues to find out if she prefers sign language, gesturing, writing or speaking. If you have trouble understanding the speech of a person who is deaf or hard of hearing, let her know.
- When using a sign-language interpreter, look directly at the person who is deaf, and maintain eye contact to be polite. Talk directly to the person (‘What would you like?’), rather than to the interpreter (‘Ask her what she’d like.’).
- People who are deaf need to be included in the decision-making process for issues that affect them; don’t decide for them.
- Before speaking to a person who is deaf or hard of hearing, make sure that you get her attention. Depending on the situation, you can extend your arm and wave your hand, tap her on the shoulder or flicker the lights.
- Rephrase, rather than repeat, sentences that the person doesn’t understand.
- When talking, face the person. A quiet, well-lit room is most conducive to effective communication. If you are in front of the light source—such as a window—with your back to it, the glare may obscure your face and make it difficult for the person who is hard of hearing to speech read.
- Speak clearly. Most people who are hard of hearing count on watching people’s lips as they speak to help them understand. Avoid chewing gum, smoking or obscuring your mouth with your hand while speaking.
- There is no need to shout at a person who is deaf or hard of hearing. If the person uses a hearing aid, it will be calibrated to normal voice levels; your shout will just sound distorted.
People With Speech Disabilities
- A person who has had a stroke, is severely hard of hearing, uses a voice prosthesis or has a stammer or other type of speech disability may be difficult to understand.
- Give the person your full attention. Don’t interrupt or finish the person’s sentences. If you have trouble understanding, don’t nod. Just ask him to repeat. In most cases the person won’t mind and will appreciate your effort to hear what he has to say.
- If you are not sure whether you have understood, you can repeat for verification.
Ask before you help
Just because someone has a disability, don’t assume she needs help. If the setting is accessible, people with disabilities can usually get around fine. Adults with disabilities want to be treated as independent people. Offer assistance only if the person appears to need it. And if she does want help, ask how before you act.
Be sensitive about physical contact
Some people with disabilities depend on their arms for balance. Grabbing them—even if your intention is to assist—could knock them off balance. Avoid patting a person on the head or touching his wheelchair, scooter or cane. People with disabilities consider their equipment part of their personal space.
Think before you speak
Always speak directly to the person with a disability, not to his companion, aide or sign language interpreter. Making small talk with a person who has a disability is great; just talk to him as you would with anyone else. Respect his privacy. If you ask about his disability, he may feel like you are treating him as a disability, not as a human being. (However, many people with disabilities are comfortable with children’s natural curiosity and do not mind if a child asks them questions.)
Don’t make assumptions
People with disabilities are the best judge of what they can or cannot do. Don’t make decisions for them about participating in any activity. Depending on the situation, it could be a violation of the law to exclude people because of a presumption about their limitations.
Respond graciously to requests
When people who have a disability ask for an accommodation at your business, it is not a complaint. It shows they feel comfortable enough in your establishment to ask for what they need. And if they get a positive response, they will probably come back again and tell their friends about the good service they received.
Say “person with a disability” rather than “disabled person.”
- Say “people with disabilities” rather than “the disabled.”
- For specific disabilities, saying “person with Tourette syndrome” or “person who has cerebral palsy” is usually a safe bet.
Still, individuals do have their own preferences. If you are not sure what words to use, ask.
Avoid outdated terms like “handicapped” or “crippled.” Be aware that many people with disabilities dislike jargony, euphemistic terms like “physically challenged” and “differently abled.” Say “wheelchair user,” rather than “confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair bound.” The wheelchair is what enables the person to get around and participate in society; it’s liberating, not confining.
With any disability, avoid negative, disempowering words, like “victim” or “sufferer.” Say “person with AIDS” instead of “AIDS victim” or “person who suffers from AIDS.”
It’s okay to use idiomatic expressions when talking to people with disabilities. For example, saying, “It was good to see you,” and “See you later,” to a person who is blind is completely acceptable; they use these expressions themselves all the time!
Many people who are Deaf communicate with sign language and consider themselves to be members of a cultural and linguistic minority group. They refer to themselves as Deaf with a capital “D,” and may be offended by the term “hearing impaired.” Others may not object to the term, but in general it is safest to refer to people who have hearing loss but who communicate in spoken language as “hard of hearing” and to people with profound hearing losses as Deaf or deaf.
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