When I give a presentation, I always preface it: “I can only share my experience as a deaf person because we’re all diverse.”
We’re all different. Some of us are born deaf. Some are late-deafened. Some of us wear hearing devices. Some don’t. Some of us learn to speak and read lips. Some of us learn to communicate with ASL. Some do both. Some do one and switch to the other later in life.
There is no right or wrong way to communicate. It just is.
I cannot speak for all deaf people. Ask 10 deaf people a question and you’re most likely to get more than five different answers. Or in the following short story case about a new technology targeting the deaf, two different answers.
- A Short Story About Preferences
- Q: Can you describe what being deaf feels like?
- Q. What hearing devices did you have, if any?
- Q: Can you differentiate conversation sounds from background noise with a hearing aid?
- Q: Could you feel or experience music before your implant? What were the first few days or weeks like after that?
- Q: What technological advancements have been made in wearable devices and how well do they work?
- Q: What can you hear?
- Q: How do the hearing aids work with your kind of deafness?
- Q: How do you listen to music?
- Q: Who is your favorite band/singer?
- Q: Do you hear in your dreams?
- Q: How did you choose lip-reading over sign language?
- Q: Why do some deaf people use sign language and some don’t?
- Q: Do I need to speak louder?
- Q: What about sarcasm? Can you tell by lipreading and body language?
- Q: In playing sports as a kid, did you find it hard to follow the coaches talking to you?
- Q: Are different accents easier or harder to lip-read? Southern U.S. vs. Northern U.S.? U.S. vs. England? Native English speaker vs. ESL speaker?
- Inclusion and Social Situations
- Q: What’s the most frustrating about social situations?
- Q: How does being deaf affect your kids?
- Q: What can people do to ensure you feel included and acknowledged in group conversations?
- Q: Are there everyday things that frustrate you, or things that you have to work around, because of a hearing-dominated culture?
- Q: What could hearing folks do to mediate or eliminate these?
- Q: How often do you bring up your deafness before the other party suggests a call or other voice activity?
- Q: What’s a caption phone?
- Q: How is a deaf person at a disadvantage in the job application process?
- Q: What accommodations should businesses and events provide for the deaf?
- Q: Though he’s a good lip reader, my Deaf friend misses a bit of the conversation. Do you think he realizes how much he misses?
- Q: Do you have suggestions on how to handle it when a Deaf friend isn’t on the mark for a conversation?
- Education and Lifestyle
- General Comments
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A Short Story About Preferences
One day, I saw a post about a new wristband that uses different vibration patterns to represent sounds. One of the comments said, “I can speak for the deaf community.”
The commenter explained that mechanically, haptic and sound are the same. Therefore, deaf people avoid products with vibrations. A better way is to create products based on sight.
I have an Apple Watch and love how I can tell the difference in the notifications based on the vibration. I know whether it’s Ring doorbell, a text message, or a timer going off.
Goodness knows I get wrapped up in my work that I won’t notice notifications (sight) on my watch’s face. Most of the notifications that alert me are vibrations. Rarely sight.
The person responded saying the watch is a temporary solution because you have to charge the watch at some point. I can’t wear it while sleeping. So, I have a visual fire alarm to cover the gap.
Several more deaf people spoke up and said the same thing I did.
The point is one person can’t speak for all deaf people. Some of us love our vibrating watches and phones. Some of us prefer ASL. Some of us prefer captions. Some both. The list is long.
We all have assumptions. It’s human nature. As a deaf person, I’ve encountered many. That’s why I believe in education. The more we know, the more we understand and respect each other.
Ironically, Helen Keller has the best quote on why I’m always happy to answer questions: “The highest result of education is tolerance.”
I always welcome questions and will update this. No question is too anything. This is a no-judgment zone. Here’s a discussion on LinkedIn with lots of great comments.
Q: Can you describe what being deaf feels like?
Without my hearing aid, I hear zip. Silence. Best way to go to sleep! I can’t imagine how hearing people can sleep being able to hear.
Q. What hearing devices did you have, if any?
When I was about a year old, I wore a hearing aid on my chest. By fourth grade, I graduated to behind-the-ear hearing aids. Then, after having my third child in my 30s, I opted for a cochlear implant in one ear.
Q: Can you differentiate conversation sounds from background noise with a hearing aid?
It’s gotten harder to go to restaurants and they’re noisier. Though I lipread, I need the hearing aid to help distinguish letters and sounds. Mom, pop, mop, bop all look the same on the lips without sound.
Q: Could you feel or experience music before your implant? What were the first few days or weeks like after that?
I wore two hearing aids before the implant. My music experience was the same as with the implant. My hearing aids worked well for me … so there were no teary moments when I got my cochlear implant turned on.
Q: What technological advancements have been made in wearable devices and how well do they work?
What makes my Cochlear Nucleus 7 different from the Nucleus 6 is that it works with the iPhone. It also comes with Bluetooth accessories so I can connect to the phone without a cable.
The company that makes my implant also has an implant (Baha) that attaches to the head. No behind-the-ear at all. A lot of factors come to play in how well they work. It’s different for each person.
If I had this implant when I was 1-year-old instead of in my 30s, I may have been able to carry on a conversation on the phone without a caption phone. For some people, this will never be possible no matter the age. Other companies making cochlear devices include Advanced Bionics and Med-El.
But as soon as I take out my bionic ear, I’m still deaf and cannot hear a thing.
Q: What can you hear?
I describe my hearing like a foreign language. Most of us know words like hola, bonjour, etc. without knowing the language. So I’ll recognize words from time to time. But most of the time listening is like reading Russian or Japanese (if you’re not fluent). You know what language it is … but you can’t translate it.
I can tell when someone is talking, but I can’t make out the words. I can hear birds tweeting, doorbell ringing (but I’ve missed it when it was noisy), the dryer buzzing at me to come get it, and the microwave beeping when I’m in the kitchen. I can’t hear the microwave beep from my office unless it’s super quiet. And there are sounds I hear and can’t make it out or figure out where it’s coming from.
One sound from upstairs that I can’t believe I can hear downstairs in my office. The rocking chair in my son’s room above my office. The creaking bugs me and I have to text him to stop! But this is only when I’m working.
Q: How do the hearing aids work with your kind of deafness?
I hear nothing without them. With them, I hear the tap tappity of the keyboard, the doorbell, the dog barking, the UPS battery beeping like crazy (happened yesterday … I heard the sound, but couldn’t find it until my son came down), the phone ringing.
Hearing aids add sound, but they cannot clarify speech. My hearing is like a foreign language. You can tell what language it is … but you can’t translate it. But occasionally, I’ll recognize words as we all know a few foreign words even without being fluent.
I can recognize a song from the first few notes and follow one when I know all the words. But any song I don’t know … all I can hear is the title of the song and the rest is gibberish.
Q: How do you listen to music?
I can and do listen to music. When I know a song by heart, I can follow along. When I don’t … it more “la la la [fill in song title] la la la.” I can tell the difference between a slow song and a fast song. I can identify some genres.
For most of the songs on my playlist, I can figure out what song plays before a single word is sung. I have no understanding of the difference between notes, rhythm, melody, or pitch. To me, music is louder, softer, higher, lower, and the speed of the beat.
Here’s an article about my first concert.
Q: Who is your favorite band/singer?
Never had one. I get on a kick and listen to something over and over. Growing up, it was Whitney Houston. One of her songs was the first I had ever recognized on the radio.
Q: Do you hear in your dreams?
Yup! Even when I don’t have my hearing aid on, I hear a voice in my head when someone is talking.
Q: How did you choose lip-reading over sign language?
My parents made that decision after talking to various experts in the field. When I was itty bitty, oral was the recommendation. Plus, my parents didn’t want to send me to residential school.
An expert advised that if my parents chose this option, then I would not learn sign until I was entrenched in lip-reading and speaking.
Q: Why do some deaf people use sign language and some don’t?
A few friends who prefer ASL have shared their reasons. A recurring theme is that ASL is effortless for them. It’s the same for someone who is bilingual or multilingual. There’s usually one language that’s preferred. It’s more natural to them. They’re more comfortable with it.
ASL is like that for those who prefer ASL to captions and lipreading. Here are Dustin Maynard‘s words.
“I, myself, prefer to have an interpreter BUT I speak for myself verbally despite the fact I can sign ASL as well. I prefer to use an interpreter because ASL is 100% accessible to me, rather than putting the puzzle together via lip-reading and I’m a good lip-reader, but when it comes to NEW people. It takes time.”
As for why someone like me doesn’t use ASL and hasn’t learned it … it’s because 99% of the people I meet and the folks in my life don’t know ASL. It’s a language like any other language. I took three years of Spanish in high school and you can bet I forgot a lot of it within a few years. ASL is the same way. If I don’t practice it, I’ll forget it. Here’s a great LinkedIn discussion on ASL.
It also forces me to keep my lipreading and speaking skills sharp.
I do know the finger alphabet, which I learned in 4th grade with my fellow classmates. Someone did a report reporting on Helen Keller passed out a postcard with the signs. The finger alphabet still comes in handy!
Q: Do I need to speak louder?
No. It’s not volume that’s usually the problem when I’m struggling to lipread. It’s the lack of enunciation. Mumblers are the hardest to understand. Some accents too. I have a dear friend who speaks great English. I had to learn to translate her Ls and Rs. I thought she said “Lost” when she was saying “Ross.”
In a conversation with someone who is hard to understand, I’ll catch a look that says “Too much trouble or you’re dense.”
This is why it’s important to understand the difference between not understanding because of a communication barrier or a knowledge gap.
People tend to assume the latter when I ask them to repeat or I’m not catching what they said.
In reality, I’m working harder to make sense of what their lips say. It could be a lack of enunciation. It could be noise. It could be an unexpected topic.
So, when that happens, social bluffing kicks in. That means I nod as if I understood. You smile. You use body language. It’s a survival skill. Social bluffing can fail like in a poker game.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always turn out well. Nothing serious. Once, I was talking to someone outside. I missed a line and nodded. My spouse overheard and told me what she said.
I felt awful because I didn’t respond with empathy. Right after, I emailed her to explain and said, “I’m sorry that happened. That’s not right.”
Why resort to social bluffing syndrome? Because I don’t want them to get frustrated with me thinking I’m too much trouble or that I’m obtuse.
Q: What about sarcasm? Can you tell by lipreading and body language?
Sometimes I catch the sarcasm. And sometimes I don’t — especially with my middle kid!
Q: In playing sports as a kid, did you find it hard to follow the coaches talking to you?
I’m amazed it never even dawned on the coaches (or they kept to themselves and I was lucky to have the coaches I had) or me about communicating with teammates on the field or court.
Somehow, I never had a run-in with anyone over a called ball. I guess it was all about keeping those eyes open and observing. I don’t know how I pulled off being part of a volleyball team. Calling for the ball on that little court with five other people is an important part of it. It was never a problem.
One exception was Coach Frank. I turned off my hearing aids to ignore him. [Grin]
Q: Are different accents easier or harder to lip-read? Southern U.S. vs. Northern U.S.? U.S. vs. England? Native English speaker vs. ESL speaker?
Yes, some accents are harder to lip-read. I have friends with accents from other countries who speak GREAT English. However, sometimes they have a letter that throws me.
For example, one person’s lips look like she said a word that started with L instead of R. I thought she said “Lost,” but she was saying “Ross.”
Regardless of locale, American accents rarely faze me. What’s important is people enunciate. I heart British accents!
Inclusion and Social Situations
I had to think about how much of an answer I want to give on this one. Social situations are a biggie and the cause of many challenging days and moments in my life since childhood.
Not feeling included. It’s an Achilles heel that has gotten me in trouble. And when I don’t feel included, it can make me feel less than. Like there’s something wrong with me. Does my accent that hails from nowhere put off people? It bugs me when I listen to myself on a video. At least, I am easy to lipread!
I know I’m a friendly, nice, and helpful person. At least, I work to live my life that way. It doesn’t take much for me to notice the little things. I can tell when someone doesn’t really want to chat with me. “Oh, I’m just moving over here to be closer to someone else.”
Second, of course, is not following the conversation. I’d rather be included and clueless about the conversation, than not included at all!
I had to think hard about whether to include this part. I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me or take pity. People with disabilities have feelings, wants, and desires like anyone else. And it could be something others face too. You’re not alone!
I think people assume I’m fine and have plenty of friends who check on me. But that’s not the case. Friends and colleagues tell me they appreciate my sharing my experiences and think highly of me. I’m still there scratching my head because I was never included or a part of a group my entire life. High school wasn’t special because I didn’t hang out and do all the fun stuff I see in my classmates’ photos when they reflect on our high school days.
This has happened my entire life, which says it’s me. Naturally, I blame deafness because like I said, I like to think I’m a nice person who helps out as much as I can. Thus, it must be because I’m too much trouble or viewed as too different.
One good thing came out of it. I’m good at spotting the quiet ones and bringing them into the conversation.
Q: How does being deaf affect your kids?
Storytime! When my daughter was in second grade, parents could volunteer to read to the class. I signed up and picked a story with a deaf character. After I left the class, I learned from my daughter that her friends were making fun of the way I talked.
I never read to my children’s class ever again. I’m used to the look on people’s faces when they realize something is different about my voice. Kids especially. I roll with it. But I will not have my deafness hurting my kids. My youngest had it the easiest because I learned from the mistakes I made with my daughter.
But in 5th grade, she got a cool thing before most of her friends. A mobile phone with a keyboard. (Sidekick.) It allowed her to text me since calling me from the school phone didn’t work.
They also learned to just open the door to my room to come in. Well … too many times it scared the bejeebies out of me while working out that I started locking the door. And unfortunately, I got into a habit of doing that and it caused my spouse to have to unlock the door at bedtime.
First, I can hear them knock on the door … if I have my bionic ear on. Sometimes they did. Sometimes they didn’t.
When we had our first child, we bought a contraption that made the lamp blink whenever she made a sound. Well, we lived in military housing. The wiring made it go off ALL THE TIME. In the trash, it went! I don’t know how I did it with my firstborn because my spouse traveled a LOT until she was 18 months old.
My kids know they can’t call for me from upstairs. Usually, I have to be within one room for them to even try. Yet, from my office downstairs, I can hear the creak of the rocking chair in my son’s room upstairs. His room is above my office. He can only use it at nights and on weekends! It’s distracting during working hours.
Q: What can people do to ensure you feel included and acknowledged in group conversations?
Check to see if I’m being included. If I get quiet and nod my head, then it’s a case of social bluffing. It means I’m doing my best to listen hard but I’m not catching what’s said or I’ve lost the plot. It could be the case of a mumbler, lack of enunciation, a noisy environment, and an accent.
Look at me consistently — not constantly, but enough to make me feel included in the conversation — when you’re talking. Ask me a question, talk to me, or simply say “They’re talking about ABC.”
It’s very easy for me to fall into the trap of sitting there not feeling part of any of the conversations. I don’t want to be rude to interject or interrupt. It’s hard to know when it’s safe to do that.
I try to find keywords, but sometimes I can’t piece it together.
Q: Are there everyday things that frustrate you, or things that you have to work around, because of a hearing-dominated culture?
The biggest one is … “Can we set up a call?”
This is a pain point during the job application and client prospecting process. You fear it’ll instantly rule you out when you tell them you have a disability or do something differently. I have to let people know I use a caption phone because there are longer pauses between speakers than the average conversation.
Q: What could hearing folks do to mediate or eliminate these?
It’s good business to offer more than one option for conversations just like any customer service-oriented website should provide multiple contact options. Fortunately, automatically captioned video calls have helped a lot. They take away a lot of the anxiety I’d have with a phone call without video.
Q: How often do you bring up your deafness before the other party suggests a call or other voice activity?
Every situation is different. I’ve occasionally tried mentioning it in the cover letter or introduction email like it’s a superpower. It does give me a unique perspective.
If a prospect, new client, or recruiter asks to get on a call, that’s when I bring it up but not always in the form of that I’m deaf. I’ll say that I use a caption phone, so there can be more pauses. If that works for you … then X days and times work for me.
It’s a phone that has a screen for captions. When you call, someone is typing the other person’s responses. It may be a mix of human and automatic speech recognition (ASR) or ASR-only. This video shows you in action. It was a simple script, so it worked better than the average call.
The best app I’ve seen for phone calls is InnoCaption for iOS devices. Androids come with built-in captions and Live Scribe.
Q: How is a deaf person at a disadvantage in the job application process?
I came across a graphic with ways to cut interviewer bias in hiring. This one is a problem: “Conduct a phone screen first.”
While it removes the visual part of the first impression bias, it adds three biases.
Accents can reveal information such as where the candidates are from and their race or culture. Yours truly has an accent that hails from nowhere with a Deaf accent.
2. Deaf and Hard of Hearing
Some Deaf and hard of hearing folks don’t like the phone. It’s not always the best communication tool. I use a caption phone, but it contains errors and adds delays.
By the time the caller finishes speaking, the captions are still playing catch up. So, there’s an awkward silence as I wait for the captions to finish.
And it doesn’t take much for captions to mess up. One wrong word can throw context out the window. A conversation happens fast. It’s easy to experience cognitive overload and not catch what the caller says.
3. Other disabilities
One friend who has Tourette syndrome says phone interviews are a disaster. Some disabilities affect speech, such as dysphasia and language processing disorder.
Q: What accommodations should businesses and events provide for the deaf?
As mentioned before, deaf people are diverse. There’s no one right way to work with Deaf students or coworkers.
Simply be flexible and adapt.
A good way to start is to talk to them privately. Ask about their preferences and any suggestions for ensuring they get the best experience from the class or to work to their full potential.
In short, make them feel welcome and open the door so they’re comfortable sharing their preferences and needs.
For every new employee who joins your organization, ask: “What can we provide to help you do you be successful in your role?” Notice there’s no mention of accessibility or accommodations. It’s not a yes or no question.
Q: Though he’s a good lip reader, my Deaf friend misses a bit of the conversation. Do you think he realizes how much he misses?
I suspect he does because I know I miss a lot. I don’t want to keep asking people to repeat. Sometimes I can’t read people’s lips because of how they enunciate. If I’m in a conversation with three people and can’t understand one … that means I miss out on at least one-third of the conversation.
It’s easy to feel left out when you get lost in the conversation. You also don’t have the benefit of overhearing conversations and learning what people talk about and use that for future conversation ideas.
Q: Do you have suggestions on how to handle it when a Deaf friend isn’t on the mark for a conversation?
See if the person looks tuned out or just nodding. Then talk to the deaf friend, ask a question, or say, “We’re talking about XYZ.” But if the person is off-topic because the person thought you were talking about something else (happens to me), the “We’re talking about …” should help.
Take care to avoid saying “We’re not talking about that …” or “We’re actually talking about …” if the person is like me, the person may feel embarrassed when finding out the person was off-topic.
Education and Lifestyle
Q: What kind of school did you attend?
I mainstreamed in public school. Except for elementary school, I attended my neighborhood schools and am a proud graduate of Southwest High School in Fort Worth. In elementary school, my mom sent me to one a little further because she liked the principal there. The school fed into Southwest High.
For my first year in college, I went to TCU right in my hometown. I’m glad I did. I had no idea how hard college was going to be. I found it hard to understand many professors. They mumbled or had an accent.
Q: What is the one thing you can’t do because you’re deaf, that you wish you could?
I wish I could a normal phone conversation with people. Using a caption phone has a lot of typos, missing words, and delays between when someone says something and I see it.
Q: What made you decide to leave Texas and go to college in Washington D.C.?
My spouse transferred to D.C. before we got married. At the time, I attended Texas Christian University. Then, I transferred to American University where I earned my degree.
Over the years, I’ve encountered interesting questions and disbelief. One person asked my spouse if I can read Braille. Definitely not. I’ve tried reading Braille and I cannot feel the different dots. I admire people who can read Braille.
A few mentioned being told, “You don’t look deaf.” What does a deaf person look like, y’all? Like you and me. Deafness doesn’t discriminate. You’ll find people in every race, culture, religion, gender, etc. who are deaf.
What questions do you have?
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