Improving communication with Deaf people
There are a vast number of sign languages around the world, just like spoken languages, and these also have their own dialects. For example, in the UK there are ‘Northern sign’, ‘London sign’ and many others, just like there are different accents in spoken languages.
"Professionals often do not realise the need to design and adapt their services." - Herbert Klein, Fellow
My Fellowship focuses on improving disaster and emergency services for Deaf people, as they are more likely to be injured or die during a disaster or crisis situations. This is often due to the lack of communication awareness within the wider population and within emergency, relief, crisis and healthcare services. Professionals often do not realise the need to design and adapt their services to better include a wide range of communication needs. This lack of awareness ultimately has a huge impact upon the health and wellbeing of Deaf people, as well as on other groups with differing communication needs.
A key tip for communicating with people who are Deaf or hard of hearing is to remember the following three S’s of communication:
- Subtitles (or a Speech-to-Text reporter). This is particularly important during online meetings, but can be used anywhere, for example at conferences or face-to-face meetings. Zoom and Teams have subtitling functions, so it’s important to familiarise yourself with these to ensure that events and meetings are accessible.
- Sign language interpreter or communication support professional (for example, lip-speaker, BSL interpreter or international sign language interpreter). Provisions for these professionals need to be thought about early on, as there is a shortage of communication support professionals, and they often get booked up quite quickly. It’s important for organisations to know how to book these professionals and that they have a responsibility to pay for these services as part of the Equality Act.
- Sound. Be sure that there isn’t too much background noise, particularly for people who use hearing devices such as hearing aids. If you work in an organisation, it’s also important to make sure that the hearing loop system (which supports hearing aid or cochlear implant users) is working.
If you are working within an organisation, be sure to include communication needs within your disability policy. Helpful things to remember are:
- Using Plain English, bullet points and visual aids such as pictures (for example, Easy Read format) can be helpful for people with differing communication needs
- Including other ways that people can get in touch, in addition to telephone numbers. For example - text message numbers, email, online chat functions and video relay services (which connect BSL users to an interpreter whilst contacting to your organisation).
- A specific contact person, for Deaf and disability access issues, can help to find access solutions or mitigate any problems from escalating.
- Remember the health and safety of the Deaf or hard of hearing person: for example, offer a vibrating or flashing fire alarm that they can wear when visiting or working within your office building or install a wifi enabled fire alarm system that a Deaf person can connect to through their mobile phone which will send them vibration alerts during emergencies. Remember, they won’t be able to hear the fire alarm.
- Booking a communication support professional (for example, an interpreter, lip-speaker, speech-to-text reporter).
There is no one-size-fits-all communication technique for all Deaf and hard of hearing people. Therefore it’s important to ask people how they prefer to communicate. Some additional helpful tips include:
- Speaking clearly (not too quickly and not too slow) if the person is relying on lip reading.
- Making sure there isn’t a shadow on your face so that the person can see you clearly. For example, if you are in front of a window, this might cast a shadow on your face and make it difficult to lip read.
- Moving to a quieter place if the background noise is intrusive, as hearing devices amplify all sounds, including background noise.
- Communicating visually might help. For example, gesturing, pointing, using facial expressions or using phone apps with photos.
- If the person has a high level of English, you could write down what you want to communicate if they don’t understand what you’ve said. However, remember that for many Deaf BSL users, English is not their first language and they might struggle with English.
One in five people in the UK are Deaf or have hearing loss. This means that you most likely come across a number of people with differing communication needs on a daily basis, perhaps without realising it. Most of the tips discussed in this blog are relatively easy to do and they make a huge difference for those of us with differing communication needs.
The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.