How to best describe to a hearing person that you are deaf

So today’s blog topic is “how to best describe to a hearing person that you are deaf”

As much as I’d love to answer this, I am hearing. It just isn’t right for me to try and answer this question when it is a situation I’ll never have to face.

Alice & Steph - Describe you are deaf

Enter my friend, Steph (left). Who is deaf. We went to university together, studied the same course, and lived together for two years out of the three. This is a photo of us pulling our nicest faces!

You may have seen Steph recently as Taking Flight’s leading lady in their production of Romeo and Juliet, which just finished touring Wales. I’m so proud!

So to answer this question, I decided to pester her about her experiences of describing to hearing people that she is deaf, and here’s how it went…


How do you tell hearing people that you are deaf?

If I am meeting a hearing person for the first time, or if it is only a brief encounter (such as in a shop) I normally sign and voice something like ‘Hi, me Deaf’. I used to not be confident enough to do this, so I would wait for them to say something and if I couldn’t lip-read them I would then say ‘I’m sorry I’m Deaf’. Now it is not something I am sorry for, hence why I’ve started to just say ‘Hi, me Deaf’. If it is in a place, such as the bank, I normally voice off and sign ‘Deaf’, then write down what I want to say. This way they understand better and usually reply in the same format by writing down their responses. I find that in these situations if I voice then they automatically assume that I can lip-read really well; and they just start speaking very fast and in all kind of directions.

In a different situation, for example starting a new job; then I normally (although it is obvious, as I am communicating through an interpreter) like to explain what the interpreter is there for. I say I am not scary, if they want to gesture, write things down, or use any other method in order to communicate directly to me then that is completely fabulous too! Communication works both ways; I don’t preach at anyone or wear a sign that flashes and says ‘DEAF AND FABULOUS’ – That would be awesome though. If people try as hard to communicate with me as I do with them then it is all good really!

Is it easy to tell hearing people that you are deaf?

It wasn’t before when I wasn’t very confident. But now I find it okay, I write things down if I need to. I used to worry that I was being a pain, or making things take longer. But I think it was you Alice that said to me that I have every right to be there and have the same access everyone else, and if that bothers them then it’s their problem! If I am working with a new person for a while, and they seem a bit apprehensive about how to communicate, then I normally do annoying things that mean we have to communicate without words or signs (like tap them on the opposite shoulder so they turn around and no one is there) just because it makes them more comfortable and relaxed, and maybe feel less “argh how do I communicate with a Deaf person?!”

How do people react?

Umm, I get so many different reactions. Sometimes they will just say ‘Doesn’t matter’, or ‘sorry’ or ‘oh okay’ and they are the reactions I don’t like because it feels like they can’t be bothered. A lot of people now, especially in the shops, are funny because they pick up the plastic bags and do a thumbs up/ thumbs down to ask if I want it or not. I like it when people just take the time to communicate whatever information it is across, to not treat me any differently from anyone else; just to try! That is the best.

Have there been any negative reactions to this? How did you handle it?

I had a horrible experience just two weeks ago in a pharmacy when I needed help. They solved my problem by arranging a phone call appointment with my doctor for the next day, without asking me, or saying that that was what they were doing. When I said for the millionth time that I was Deaf how do you expect me to make a phone call appointment, they said ‘oh looks like you have a problem’. They said I should ask my family to do it. I told them that they are all Deaf (they are not, I just said this to prove a point) and they did the whole exaggerated lip pattern and waving arms around so I walked out. Some people are not worth it. But I ate a lot of vegan cake afterwards because, well, I deserved it! 

Another common experience is when I’m with a hearing friend and the person automatically just looks at them and talks to them. Now I am more confident; I say ‘you can look at me’. Or something like that. I am always polite, unless someone has a particularly negative response. 

One time someone asked me “oh you are Deaf, can you read?” I just said to them ‘that is really patronising, being Deaf has nothing to do with my reading ability’.

Mostly if I’m faced with a negative reaction I tend to voice off, sometimes say something horrible in BSL (but only if it’s a particularly negative reaction!) and normally say something to myself in my head. I say I am confident but this is not always the case!

Have there been any positive reactions?

Lady at Co-op learning some signs, at the local art centre they just know what I order because it’s always same! Or if they know sign!! Like in the Starbucks in London where you can order in BSL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The best. It’s just people who try and communicate- that is a positive!

 What advice would you give to someone who finds it difficult to “out” themselves as deaf?

I think it depends a lot on the person; you either decide you can carry on struggling, or you can say something. Really, the main thing is confidence, it takes a lot of confidence because you can get beaten down by negative reactions. Alice you are a logical lady- you say ‘well it’s their fault if they have a negative reaction, being Deaf is fabulous, so why worry about saying it’. I am very confident now, and an assertive Deaf woman because of Alice’s logic. So maybe we need a list of Alice logic in this thing? Also think if it was the other way round and the majority of people were Deaf and you had a hearing person come up to you in a shop who did not know the Deaf ways.. then I would want them to say ‘I need you to write it down or something’.

I have a friend who is blind, and we are both assertive and confident; I make Deaf jokes, especially if someone says “did you hear about this?” and if someone says “I can’t see!” (as in something is in the way) my friend will say- ‘me neither!’ It’s just about letting everyone know how proud and fabulous it is to be Deaf.  If they can’t handle it is their fault; and if they do then it’s just more people we have in the Deaf and fabulous battle!

A big thank you to Steph for this. She is about to head off to Africa to work with Travellers Worldwide to help teach deaf children. Hopefully she’ll send me a postcard!

If you’ve had any good/bad/funny experiences telling a hearing person that you’re deaf, pop over to our Facebook page and do share!


Alice J