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What Hearing People Need to Know About Deaf Culture

Updated on July 10, 2012

Hearing people and deaf people think differently, because they experience life differently. What many hearing people don't realize is that during the times that they are trying to be respectful to deaf people, they may just be digging themselves a deeper hole.

American Sign Language Alphabet
American Sign Language Alphabet


For the hearing community it is common that you may have to physically walk between two people who are having a conversation. Also, many times its common for someone to stop, say excuse me, and then wait for the people having the conversation to let them through. However, this is not the best way to approach the situation for a conversation in sign language. Deaf and hard of hearing people are extremely visual, because they most likely cannot use noises around them to give them clues about what's going on in every day life.

Therefore, to stop, ask for permission to go through the conversation and repeatedly saying (or even signing) "sorry, excuse me" can be highly distracting for those who are trying to sign to one another. So what's the best way to approach the situation?

The best thing to do is to just quickly walk between the two signers so that you are not visually blocking anyone for very long. It is far less distracting to see a person for a quick second and then they leave, than it is for the conversation to stop altogether because someone is trying to get by.

Getting a Deaf Person's Attention

There are some ways that are better than others when it comes to getting a deaf person's attention.

One way to get their attention is to wave your hand around. This method works because of their visual nature- if they notice out of the corner of their eye something is moving around, they are likely to look in that direction.

Another way to get their attention is to tap them on the shoulder or arm. This is a gentle way of asking them to focus on you.

One last way is to flick the lights off then on, or vice versa. This is a more visual cue that is great for when you are farther away from a deaf person.

A deaf person may get a hearing person's attention by knocking on a surface, among other noises.

What not to do: yell at a deaf person or throw things at them. These would be rude to hearing OR deaf people.

Communicating Without Sign Language

Not all people who are deaf or hard of hearing can read lips. Although there are those people who can, its not a skill that all deaf or hard of hearing people possess. Needless to say, it may not be conducive to conversation to slowly mouth words to a deaf person. With the way that words are formed in the mouth, there are many letters/sounds that can look the same, no matter how slow you say them.

So what can you do?

One thing that you can do is write back and forth. Most deaf people (in America) can write in English (assuming that is the primary language used). This is a more direct way of communication, and there is less of a chance for misinterpretation.

Another option, whenever it is available, is to use an interpreter. They are trained to give the closest translation possible between the two languages, because the two do not line up perfectly all the time.

Because of the nature of sign language, gesturing also comes in handy. A visual representation of what you are trying to say is not the most efficient way to get a message across normally, but those who know how to sign can make better connections with an idea and a picture.

What about those who know how to sign?

If you are someone who knows how to sign (even if it isn't proficiently) there are some things to keep in mind. The first of these is that there is a difference in signing in ASL and PSE (Pidgin Signed English) which by definition is a mixture of ASL and English languages. For example, a person may be using ASL signs, but use English syntax.

Those who become deaf or hard of hearing later in life (usually after they have used or heard the English language) might also use PSE. PSE is the middle ground between the two languages, and most culturally deaf people will know to use PSE, but it is in fact something different to ASL. When two culturally deaf people speak to each other, they will generally use ASL.

Sign Language Across The Globe

Something else that many people might not know that ASL is not a universal sign language. There are many different sign languages that have developed over time, and each country may even have multiple sign languages. For example in America there is American Sign Language (ASL) and English Sign Language (ESL) among others.


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    • Keri Machin profile image

      Keri Machin 3 years ago from Miami Florida

      very interesting hub. good to know this stuff for sure

    • Cardisa profile image

      Carolee Samuda 5 years ago from Jamaica

      Hello Bridget, welcome to hubpages.

      I am so happy to meet you and your hub is very educational. I have learned quite a few things about the hearing impaired and how to approach them or deal with certain situations. I also agree with you that yelling is offensive to both hearing and non-hearing persons. I have not interacted much with the hearing impaired but these tips will come n handy if I do. Thanks for sharing.