Welcome to Deaf Awareness Week, a week of opportunity for you to to recognise, empathise and improve your visitor experience for people who are D/deaf!

The most difficult challenge around inclusion of deaf visitors is communication. I’m going to ask you to do one important thing this week, as an individual, or as a team, I want you to think about what your visitor journey is like for a person who is D/deaf. You will no doubt discover those ‘of course, I didn’t even think of that as a barrier’ moments, and if you do, please share them with me, I want to know what you learn this week and will help you wherever I can.

Improve customer service & visitor experience

All types of organisations (not just museums) often fall short when it comes to communicating with visitors who are deaf. Frustrations and misunderstandings can arise at various touch points and the whole visitor experience can be pretty awful for both sides.

Customer service can be improved greatly with a basic understanding about deafness and the barriers that may be preventing you from offering your visitors a great experience.

This week we’ll be offering you tips and advice to reduce those barriers, starting today with an introduction to the different types of deafness and how to recognise a deaf visitor.

Why be deaf aware?

  • Develop staff communication and customer service skills
  • Improve the reputation of your organisation for being positive about deaf visitors
  • Attracting and retaining more loyal visitors through great customer service
  • Avoid unintentional discrimination

Types of deafness

There are few types of deafness and with each type there are different preferred methods of communication to use, so it’s good to understand these from the outset.

It’s fair to say that some hearing people are afraid of what terminology should be used when talking about deaf people. Here is an explanation of each type.

  • D/deaf

D/deaf is a term used to cover all people with some type of deafness and includes those who are:

  • Hard of hearing people have a slight to moderate hearing loss and will probably wear one or two hearing aids. They have difficulty hearing speech clearly, but are generally able to join in everyday activities.
  • Partially deaf people have a more severe hearing loss which significantly affects everyday activities and communication. They may use both speech/lip-reading and sign language and probably wear hearing aids.
  • Profoundly deaf people have little or no useful hearing and while some may wear hearing aids these do little more than assist with environmental awareness and do not help much with the understanding of speech

This last group of profoundly deaf people can be further subdivided into people who are: ‘deafened’ ‘deaf’ and ‘Deaf’

  • ‘deafened’ people have lost most or all of their hearing after childhood. Speaking was their first communication method so they use speech and lip-reading, but some may use Sign-Supported English; others choose to use BSL (British Sign Language)
  • ‘deaf’ people, with a lower-case “d‟, are those born profoundly deaf, but choose to use speech and lip-reading and regard English as their first language.
  • Deaf people are those who use British Sign Language as their first or preferred language and are known as “Deaf‟ with a capital “D‟. They regard themselves as a linguistic and cultural minority and have a separate “Deaf Culture‟ and a thriving deaf Community.

“Deaf and Dumb” – Did someone just say that?! This is extremely offensive and should never be used. Thankfully it’s not used so often nowadays, although we have heard examples of some people still using it (which make all of us cringe!).

It’s important to understand that depending on the type of deafness, there are varying levels of spoken and written English being used – basically this is whether English is their first or second language. This is one major barrier when communicating – using English with a deaf person whose first language is actually BSL – this is an opportunity for misunderstandings to develop.

Deaf people might sound different

You might meet deaf visitors who have an unusual sound or pattern to their speech – they simply have never heard the word they are saying and so it may not sound like what you are used to hearing. Also, hearing people have the ability to gauge the volume of their speech, so some people who are deaf may have louder voices.

Consider why this is – when a hearing person learns English as a child the process is to listen and repeat, if you take away the hearing element the process suddenly becomes more difficult, so levels of English grammar and sounds of speech will vary with D/deaf people depending on what teaching and support they’ve had.

Methods of communication

Depending on the type of deafness and their first language (either English or non-verbal such as British Sign Language) will depend on the preferred method of communication by a person who is deaf. Methods include:

  • Oral – Lip reading
  • Manual – sign language, finger spelling, gesture, mime
  • Written – any text based communication such as, signage, email, fax, SMS, web chat, textphones or literature

Tips: How to recognise a deaf person

  • Person may tell you.
  • Person wears hearing aids (remember it/they may not be visible)
  • Person uses Sign Language.
  • Voice may sound different.
  • Does not respond when spoken to from behind.
  • Watches the speaker’s mouth as they rely on lip reading.
  • Ask you to repeat.
  • Language is different – simple or unusual English.
  • May have a hearing guide dog

There is not one solution for all

So there are methods of communicating that work best depending on not only the situation, whether it’s face to face or non face to face, but also depending on what type of deafness someone has. By recognising these staff can use the best method to engage with your D/deaf customers.

Next post we will look at face to face communication and give you tips and advice on skills including lip reading and sign language.

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