Acting with empathy: How to interact with people who are deaf or hard of hearing

illustration of ear hearing sound

In Tennessee, 8% of people live with deafness or serious difficulty hearing, which means more than half a million Tennesseans are hard of hearing. One of those people is Desireé Colón, a communications specialist at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

Desiree Colon

Desireé Colon

“I was born with 100% hearing loss in my left ear, and I’ve lost significant hearing in my right ear over the years due to Meniere’s Disease,” Desireé says. “I wear hearing aids — the one in my left ear now picks up sounds on that side and sends it to my hearing ear. So 2020 was the first time in my life where I was able to get a sense of what it’s like to hear completely.”

Living with different degrees of hearing loss has given Desireé a unique perspective on how hearing people should approach the issue.

In general, what should people keep in mind when interacting with people of different abilities?

Colón: They’re normal people, just like you. People who are deaf or hard of hearing may do things a little bit differently — they’ve found interesting ways to get through things, and to navigate different situations. Oftentimes they’re super creative people because of that, and we can learn a lot from them.

What words are best to use when referring to people who are deaf or hard of hearing?

Colón: Personally, I’m fine being called “hard of hearing” or “hearing impaired,” and it’s not a big deal to me when people say that I have a “hearing disability.” However, I do know some people consider it offensive to be called “hearing impaired” because they don’t want to be limited in terms of who they are or what they can do.

I understand that. I don’t like being called a “deaf person” because it makes me feel like that’s all that I am. If you’re talking about a friend who is deaf or hard of hearing, make sure that the person’s ability to hear isn’t the first thing you mention. Semantics make a difference — I am a person who is partially deaf, not a “deaf person.”

How to interact with people who have disabilities

Is it okay to use auditory language such as, “Did you hear about that?”

Colón: I work closely with the diversity and inclusion team at BlueCross, so I’m always trying to be mindful of this kind of thing. I think it depends how you’re using the language.

Asking if someone “heard” about something is probably fine. However, saying something is “tone deaf” can be offensive. It’s the same principle as saying, “I’m so OCD” when obsessive-compulsive disorder is actually a real mental health issue. Take the time to find another term.

What should people know about American Sign Language (ASL)?

Colón: I’m actually enrolling in ASL in a month because I don’t know any yet! I do think sign language is beneficial, but don’t assume that everyone who’s hard of hearing knows ASL. I’ve had people say to me, “You’re super deaf. You should know sign language.” Personally, I’ve navigated my life well without it. Don’t make assumptions about what someone else should or shouldn’t do.

Did you know American Sign Language (ASL) is not a visual form of English? 

According to Bridges for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, English and American Sign Language are not related. ASL is derived from French Sign Language, which was derived from French. ASL is a separate language with its own grammar and no relation to sound.

What should hearing people keep in mind when interacting with people who are deaf or hard of hearing?

Colón: Remember that there are different levels of hearing loss.

  • Some people use devices such as hearing aids or cochlear implants so they can hear.
  • Some people are completely deaf and rely on reading lips.
  • Then, there are people like me who are 100% deaf in one ear and have lost a lot in the other, but who use hearing aids that bring me close to hearing as you do.

It’s also good to remember that there are many different reasons for hearing loss, and not everyone wants to share those details.

Hearing loss can happen from frequent ear infections or even loud noises or accidents; for me, it was a birth defect and also from a disease. If you have an established relationship with someone, it’s probably okay to ask what happened at some point — if you’re coming from a sincere, authentic place. But think of it this way: You wouldn’t meet someone and start asking about their medical history, so don’t do that here. Don’t assume how someone lost their hearing, and don’t ask intense questions such as: “How does it feel to know you’ll probably be totally deaf one day?” I’ve had people do that, and it’s extremely jarring.

6 tips for interacting with people who are deaf or hard of hearing

1. Don’t yell. 

Colón: When you have a disability, people often raise their voices without thinking about it. But I already feel different enough! Just speak normally, make eye contact and treat it like any other interaction. Also, don’t ask other people to speak up to “help” someone who’s hard of hearing. I’ve had well-meaning friends do that, but it isn’t the kind of support I need.

2. Speak clearly.

Colón: Enunciate, try not to mumble, and make sure people can see your lips and mouth when possible. You’ve probably noticed during the pandemic how hard it is to communicate when half of a person’s face is covered by a mask. That’s how people who are hard of hearing feel a lot of the time! If you can speak clearly and not mumble, that’s hugely helpful.

3. Use nonverbal cues. 

Colón: When you have hearing loss, it’s hard to locate where sound is coming from. If I’m walking through the office and someone yells my name, I end up turning in circles or ignoring them because it’s too hard to locate. However, if someone waves to say “hi” or to flag me down, that’s great, and so is pointing to where you want me to go. Think of how someone might direct you to the bathroom in a loud restaurant. Using your hands and giving simple nonverbal cues goes a long way.

4. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself.

Colón: Get comfortable with repeating things. Sure, we all know jokes aren’t as funny the second or third time around. But to someone who is hard of hearing, saying, “Never mind,” “I don’t want to repeat myself,” or “It doesn’t matter” is really discouraging. We want to be included, and what you said matters to us! Please just repeat it.

Similarly, know that it’s easy for people who are hard of hearing to feel lost in a group. Sometimes I have a hard time knowing who said what, especially if there’s a lot of background noise. Or I find myself just laughing when others laugh and then asking a close friend what happened afterward. Sometimes I need a little extra help to feel included. Offer that help if you can, and avoid asking questions like, “Why are you always so lost during conversations?” I’ve had people do that to me when I asked for clarification, and it was hurtful. Just be patient.

5. Don’t assume people can’t do things

Colón: In general, the people I’ve worked for have never discounted me for projects just because I’m hard of hearing, but I know that happens all the time. I’ve done a lot of public speaking because my career requires that, which surprises people. It just shows it’s always a good idea to give people the opportunity.

6. Be careful when using touch.

Colón: People are particular about touch, so this very much depends on the person. I’m okay with a light touch on the shoulder if I’m missing a verbal cue, or if someone is entering a space where I have my back turned to them. If you think someone won’t be okay with you touching them, ask, or just don’t do it.

Any specific advice when working with people who are deaf or hard of hearing?

Colón: Get to know that person and figure out what works best for them. For example, if I’m at the office, many of my coworkers have learned that I like it when people sit on my “good” side, a.k.a. my right side where I have more hearing, and now they do that on their own. It’s not necessary, but it’s nice.

When using technology, speak clearly, check what was dictated, and use captions if at all possible. It is my passion in life to get captions on everything — videos, alt text on websites, you name it!

From a human resources perspective, make sure it’s clear that employees can self-identify as hearing impaired. It feels good to say, “This is where I am, and I’m fine, but here’s what would help.” For example, I require a headset because I have a hard time wearing earbuds or headphones with my hearing aids. BlueCross provided me with the perfect headset because we’ve had those conversations.

In general, I feel safe at my job because we help people who have similar issues. I don’t want people to think I can’t do something because of my hearing loss, or not to hire me because of it. In reality, my hearing loss makes me more of a well-rounded, empathetic person, and it bonds me with other people who are hard of hearing. I can talk to them about their situation if they’re comfortable with that, and you can too. Have those open, honest conversations, but always balance them with the fact that a person’s ability to hear is not the person’s whole identity.

To learn more, Desireé recommends the following articles:

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Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).