Two Ears, One Mouth

Listening Without Hearing

October 29, 2021

Communicating With & Within the Deaf Community


  • Thoughts on the culture of the international deaf community and how they listen without spoken words.
  • Ways that deaf people communicate with sign language, lip reading, and using advances in technology.
  • Tips for conversing with a deaf person.

It was on an Alaska Airlines flight to Portland, Oregon during the spring of 2018 that the inquiring announcement was made. The flight attendant got on the speaker and asked if anyone onboard knew American Sign Language.

Young passenger Clara Daly, 15, answered the call. Another passenger, Tim Cook, 64, is deaf and blind and couldn’t easily communicate with the flight attendants. Clara had taken sign language classes for a year and stepped in to help.

The attendants asked her to sign letters into Mr. Cook’s hand. So she knelt in front of Cook and took his hand and asked him, “How are you? Are you O.K.?”

“Clara was amazing,” an Alaska flight attendant said. “You could tell Tim was very excited to have someone he could speak to and she was such an angel.”

The story of the young girl on the plane was published far and wide, and for all the right reasons. It was a simple act of kindness of helping a fellow human. Another passenger posted on Facebook about the heart-warming incident, and it went viral. The post has received more than a million positive reactions.

Through a sign language interpreter, Cook shared, ”I was in a bad mood before Clara helped and she was very sweet and nice. She had very clear communication and we had a nice conversation. Best trip I’ve ever had.”

Cook is just one of the 48 million deaf and hard of hearing people across the United States. Being deaf is often thought of as a physical identity, but many consider it to instead be a cultural and linguistic identity. In the book Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture it is written, “We use the lowercase deaf when referring to the audiological condition of not hearing, and the uppercase Deaf when referring to a particular group of deaf people who share a language – American Sign Language (ASL) – and a culture…. Fewer than 10 percent are born to parents who are also Deaf. Consequently, in contrast to the situation in most cultures, the great majority of individuals within the community of Deaf people do not join it at birth.”

This "cultural model" tends to be favored by the deaf community. The thinking is that the inability to receive audible information should not be the sole defining characteristic of any individual or group and that a more inclusive approach is to view a deaf person for what they can do, rather than what they cannot. The point often used is that since deaf people, like Tim, can communicate using ASL that their communicative abilities are not diminished. They are simply perceived that way by "hearing" standards of receiving and expressing information audibly. The flip side is that "hearing" people are at a disadvantage since few "hearing" people, like the flight attendants, can communicate fluently in ASL.

Deaf culture encompasses a set of beliefs, attitudes, history, norms, values, literary traditions, and art shared by deaf people. Deaf culture is part of deaf communities throughout the world, and the use of sign language is typically the main identifier within these communities. We’ll take a closer look at these forms of communication used for listening, without hearing. So let’s start off with the ASL sign for “listening” and lend an ear to hearing about deaf culture.


Listening with Sign Language

There is no single sign language used throughout the world. There’s a wide range for how many different types of sign languages exist globally, and most linguists put it somewhere between 138 and 300 different types. Even countries that share the same spoken language do not have the same sign language as each other. For example, the English speaking countries of the United States, Great Britain, and Australia all have their own sign languages. 

American Sign Language was formed by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. That name may sound familiar since Gallaudet University, the first and only deaf university in the world, was named in honor of him. The legend goes that in 1814, Gallaudet visited family in Hartford, Connecticut. He was looking out the window and noticed his younger siblings were not playing with the neighbor’s child, Alice Cogswell. Gallaudet attempted to communicate with Alice by pointing to his hat and writing H-A-T in the dirt. 

Alice wanted to learn more and so her wealthy father sent Gallaudet to Europe to learn the methods for teaching sign language to the deaf. In Paris, he met Laurent Clerc, a deaf instructor of sign language. Clerc taught Gallaudet sign language and Gallaudet taught Clerc English. Together they established a sign language unique to the United States but that was inspired by French Sign Language. They launched the American School for the Deaf in 1817 and Clerc became the first deaf teacher of deaf students in the United States.

Credit: Twitter Marlee Matlin @MarleeMatlin

Listening with Lip Reading

You may recall that classic Seinfeld episode titled “The Lip Reader” where George uses Jerry's girlfriend to spy on his friends by having her read their lips. And of course, Kramer also claims to be a lip reader too. The lip reader was played by Marlee Matlin, a deaf actress who is the only deaf performer to have won an Academy Award. Matlin wears a hearing aid and communicates with sign language, using an interpreter, and reading lips

A lip reader will try to ‘listen’ to speech by observing the movements of the speaker’s lips and tongue, facial expression, and body language. Only 30% of spoken English can accurately be lip read -- despite what Kramer may say! This is because many words sound the same, but have different meaning, like ‘break’ and ‘brake.’ Or they look the same in the lip pattern, such as ‘gap’/‘cab’/‘ham.’ Or back to that Seinfeld episode, ‘six’ and ‘sex.’ It helps to have some context of the conversation to narrow down the possible words being said, otherwise like Jerry you may be offending your date.

Lip reading has become especially challenging during the pandemic with masks and other face coverings. Here in the U.S. and in other countries like Belgium, there is a strong call for wearing transparent masks in public. And donations of lip reading face masks are being made to countries like Zimbabwe where an estimated 700 000 people who are classified as deaf are underserved.


Listening with Technology

Alarm clocks, doorbells, and hearing aids are just some of the products that have made significant tech advances and benefited the ability of the deaf community to listen much easier. The simple telephone is probably the one that has made the most strides. With a smartphone, deaf people can use a variety of apps to communicate or hop on Skype for face-to-face signing with anyone around the world.

But communication was more challenging in years past until Robert Weitbrecht, a deaf scientist, developed the teletypewriter (TTY) in the 1960s. The TTY was a game-changer because it gave deaf and hard of hearing people the ability to call each other over a telephone line. A TTY allows typing messages back and forth to one another, instead of talking and listening. If one person doesn’t have a TTY, they could use a Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS) with a special operator who types or speaks the messages back and forth. Many deaf people still use TTYs, especially those in areas that do not have access to affordable internet.

Other tech developments include the invention of closed captioning. That started in 1972 at the Boston public television station WGBH on rebroadcasts of The French Chef with Julia Child. But closed captioning works best for those whose primary language is English to read the subtitles (and those of us who can’t seem to understand those accents on The Crown!). And English is not the same as ASL. That’s why you often see sign language interpreters on the screen at press conferences, and in fact, this is a legal mandate.

So what if one day you find yourself on a plane, or in some other situation, where you’re trying to communicate with a deaf person? Rochester Institute of Technology, a premier institution for the deaf, has these tips. And no surprise, listening is a key factor.

  • Acknowledge the fact that your first attempts to communicate will feel awkward and uncomfortable. This will pass as your interaction progresses.
  • Use a combination of communication methods, such as hand gestures, facial expressions, and the written word with paper and pen.
  • Take the time to communicate and connect. Deaf people consider communication an investment of time and effort. Slow down, take your time and ask for clarification if you need it.
  • Understand that deaf people listen with their eyes. Vision is the most useful tool they have to communicate and receive information. Only speak when you have eye contact and maintain eye contact as a sign of respect.
  • Use the beginning and end of a conversation as an opportunity to make physical and visual contact with the deaf person. If appropriate, smile, shake hands, and touch their arm.

These suggestions can apply to any setting, with any person, where active listening is key. Give it a try and maybe you’ll be part of a viral Facebook post, just like Clara and Tim.

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