18 Terrible misconceptions and mistakes you should never make when dealing with the deaf and hard of hearing

Fact: I used to be almost completely deaf in one ear. I am now hard of hearing. In other words, I don’t hear well. That makes it very, very hard to communicate with people. And makes you really self-conscious. Especially when you have to wear a box on your hip and a loop around your neck so your hearing aid can pick up what your teacher is saying, and your teacher has to go around wearing a microphone everywhere. Over the years, I’ve come across several things that really, really irk me, and for the longest time, I thought they were just me things, but I’ve come to realize that in almost every single case, these things are largely byproducts of being almost completely deaf from a young age (read: before I even learned to talk).

  1. Don’t raise your voice to talk. It doesn’t make you any easier to understand, and if the person you’re talking to reads lips, actually makes it harder.
  2. Lip reading isn’t perfect. At best it’s maybe 30% accurate. No, I can’t magically understand everything you’re saying from the other side of the room with absolutely no context. It doesn’t make you a super-spy. It just helps you understand what’s already going on in a conversation.
  3. Communication is a two-way road. Whether or not you realize it, I’m trying really hard to understand what you’re saying. Please try to make some effort in return. It’s appreciated.
  4. Many deaf people (myself included in this list from time to time) will simply make assumptions about what the conversation was about, or what was said, and try to react appropriately, which can sometimes lead to very awkward situations, such as the oh-so-common “What’s up?” “Good, you?” Which gets odd looks, at the very least.
  5. If a deaf person has gone out of their way to ask you to repeat something, don’t say it doesn’t matter or is unimportant. If you took the time to say it, and they took the time to ask you to repeat it, it is important. Often this can be inferred to mean “You’re not important enough for me to waste my time repeating myself”, or simply choosing to exclude that person from your conversation.
  6. If after a few attempts repeating yourself results unsuccessful, rephrase what you said. maybe it’s just the way you were saying it that I was unable to understand.
  7. Deaf people are very self-conscious, and are just like anyone else. Don’t treat a deaf person as mentally handicapped just because they don’t hear well, and, as a consequence, may not speak well. It’s extremely rude. Hearing loss is not intelligence loss.
  8. Don’t cover your mouth when talking to a deaf person. If I can’t see your mouth it’s much harder to know what you’re saying.
  9. For those with one-sided deafness, it can be nearly impossible to tell where a sound is coming from in large, open spaces. Rather than just yell, “I’m over here!”, tell the person where you are. (This is a big one for me.)
  10. Deaf people aren’t always shy! We just don’t always know how to communicate with other people. I, for one, have a very hard time communicating in English, because of the way American culture is. However, speaking Spanish is fairly easy for me, as the culture is similar to deaf culture – being blunt is acceptable, for one, and they aren’t so big on the personal bubble thing.
  11. If I lean over awkwardly and ask you to repeat something, it’s because I’m putting my right (good) ear closer to you so that I can understand what you’re saying. This goes with the personal bubble thing. Don’t get offended. I’m just trying to understand you.
  12. If you notice me staring at your mouth instead of looking you in the eye, again, it’s not to be awkward. I’m just trying to understand.
  13. Don’t try to figure out how well I can hear by pretending to whisper and just mouthing words. For example, mouthing “watermelon” over and over again doesn’t look like anything but you saying watermelon. I know how well I can hear, and what I can and can’t hear. Frankly, it’s rude and annoying.
  14. Deaf people are also prone to be distrusting, which comes with being manipulated by the hearing world. Let me give a personal example: I am very choosy as to who I let be my friends and actually know me, as I’m fairly used to being ridiculed, insulted, and mocked. As a kid I had my hearing aid stolen from me several times by school bullies.
  15. Get a deaf person’s attention before you start talking to them. Rule of thumb for me: if I’m not looking at you, I won’t catch anything you say up until four or five words after I start looking at you, especially if I’m lost in thought or absorbed in work. It has nothing to do with “being a space job” or not paying attention. Tap them on the shoulder lightly or wave your hand in their line of sight. Stomping may work if the floor conducts well, but don’t just shout.
  16. Being in loud environments is taxing. Deaf people have to work a lot harder to understand what people are saying in these environments. For example, I get nasty headaches if I’m standing next to a set of PA speakers at a dance and trying to hold a conversation with someone.
  17. For people with one-sided hearing, it’s extremely hard to sort out different sounds. For example, I can usually only understand and focus on the loudest sound I’m currently hearing. To do anything else is extremely tedious. (Compare it to trying to find a very dim star by staring right at it. Your eyes are better at seeing dim things when they’re not looking directly at it, so if you try to look right at a dim star, it may seem to disappear, and as soon as you look away, it reappears. Try it! It gives a good idea of how I feel trying to hear you, and is a pretty cool little biology factoid.)
  18. If I have headphones in, your only hope of getting my attention is tapping me or waving in my line of sight. I turn on music and turn the volume up high enough to block out external noises so I can have a quiet and predictable space to focus on. Like I said before, I focus on the loudest thing.
That’s more or less it. I’ll write more as I think of it.