The Basics

Have you ever wondered about the terms for people who have a different hearing status? When should you use “Deaf”, “hard of hearing”, or “hearing impaired”?

The word “deaf” can have different meanings depending on whether or not the D is capitalized. The word “deaf” with a lowercase d is a general term that includes all people with significantly reduced hearing. A person who is capital-D “Deaf” considers themselves part of the Deaf community and identifies with Deaf culture, which has its roots in American Sign Language (ASL).

ASL is not a gestural form of English, nor is it a universal language used by deaf people around the world. It is a distinct language that uses visual cues, with its own grammatical rules, semantics, and pragmatics. ASL evolved from French Sign Language (LSF) and American Indian Sign Language. LSF was brought to the United States in the early 1800s by Laurent Clerc, a French teacher of the deaf who traveled to America with Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, for whom Gallaudet University is named.

If you’re interested in learning American Sign Language, you can visit our Resources page.

There is no universal definition for the term “hard of hearing“, but it is generally used to describe people with reduced hearing who have access to some spoken language fluency. Late-deafened individuals are those that had a significant reduction in hearing after childhood. Some hard of hearing and late-deafened people identify as Deaf, and some do not.

Hearing impaired” is no longer an appropriate term for any person with hearing differences because of the negative connotations of the word “impaired”.

Communicating with Deaf and Hard of Hearing Individuals

How Should I Communicate with a Deaf or Hard of Hearing Person? | Getting Their Attention | Using Spoken Language

No matter who you’re interacting with, the most important thing to remember is that you should work together with the other person to create an accessible environment. Keep in mind that deaf and hard of hearing people, especially those who are part of the Deaf community, may have certain cultural differences that appear while communicating.

How Should I Communicate with a Deaf or Hard of Hearing Person?

Not all deaf and hard of hearing people prefer to communicate in the same way. Some might prefer to speak, and some might prefer to use writing. Their first language might be English, or it might be American Sign Language. Don’t assume anything. Instead, ask them how they want to proceed. They probably know exactly what they want from you.

If you speak out loud and they don’t understand, try miming the following actions with your eyebrows raised: speaking (point at your mouth while you do it), writing on a piece of paper, and typing on your phone.

If you know American Sign Language and you’re talking to a deaf or hard of hearing person who uses sign language, you should try to sign yourself. Even if you feel nervous or unskilled, the person you’re talking to will appreciate your effort, and they’ll let you know if they prefer to communicate a different way.

Want to learn American Sign Language? Check out our Resources page.

Getting Their Attention

If you need to get the attention of somebody who can’t hear you, try the following:

  • Lightly wave your hand in their line of sight. This is how Deaf people get the attention of one another.
  • Tap them lightly on the shoulder.
  • If they are far away and have their back turned away from you, get the attention of somebody in their line of sight, and have that person point at you.
  • If you need to get the attention of many deaf and hard of hearing people at once, turn the lights in the room off and on a couple times.

Using Spoken Language

Get their attention first

Deaf and hard of hearing people process information visually, and it is much easier for them to follow speech if you wait until they look at you before you begin to speak. Get their attention. That way they can see your mouth, facial expressions, and body language.

Establish the topic

People who are deaf or hard of hearing sometimes miss individual words or phrases during speech and rely on their knowledge of what’s being discussed to fill in the gaps. However, conversations often change subject without warning, especially in groups.

If the topic of conversation changes, pausing to acknowledge the change and state the new subject can be a big help. Something as simple as, “Speaking of the weather…” is often enough.

Use body language and gestures

Deaf and hard of hearing people are visual. Those who are a part of the Deaf Community, especially, are accustomed to using their hands and face to communicate. Gesturing and using clear facial expressions when speaking to a person with hearing differences can help them understand what you’re saying.

Miming is also okay if it helps to get a certain point across, but remember that mime is not the same as sign language.


You should not assume that every deaf and hard of hearing person can lipread or that they want to lipread. Many deaf and hard of hearing people are reluctant to say that they can lipread because of the myth that it allows for 100% understanding.

According to the National Association for the Deaf, “On average, even the most skilled lipreaders understand only 25% of what is said to them, and many individuals understand far less. Lipreading is most often used as a supplement to the use of residual hearing, amplification, or other assistive listening technology. Because lipreading requires some guesswork, very few deaf or hard of hearing people rely on lipreading alone for exchanges of important information.”

If you know that lipreading is happening, make sure that the other person can see your face, and follow these tips:

  • Keep your mouth and eyes visible.
  • Maintain eye contact; try not to look around the room too much.
  • Face forward while speaking; don’t turn your back.
  • Don’t cover your mouth with your hands. Don’t eat or chew gum while you talk.
  • If you have a thick mustache or beard, keep in mind that you will be much harder to lipread.

Lighting is an important factor in making sure the other person can see your face. If possible, try to communicate in bright spaces. Do not sit or stand directly in front of a light source, as that will create a shadow over your face that makes lipreading extremely difficult.

Speak clearly and enunciate

Speaking clearly and enunciating can help a deaf or hard of hearing person understand you. However, it does not mean shouting and speaking extremely slowly. Why?

  • Understanding speech is not always a volume problem. Many people with hearing differences can’t understand speech well even if the volume of the voice they’re listening to is satisfactory. This is because of a disruption in the connection between the ear and the brain, which loudness can’t fix.
  • Not all hearing is the same. The person you’re talking to might be completely deaf, or they might have slightly reduced hearing. Make an effort to figure out how to best interact with them rather than assuming they want you to shout.
  • Distorting the way you speak makes you harder to understand. Many people with hearing differences use common speech rhythms to help them anticipate what other people are saying. Distorting your mouth prevents them from being able to do this.
  • It can be demeaning. Raising the volume of your voice and enunciating may help a deaf or hard of hearing person understand you, but it can be done in a respectful way.

Awkward moments

Even if you follow all of the above tips while speaking to a deaf or hard of hearing person, they’ll probably still misunderstand you at some point. Don’t feel bad or stop. Just repeat yourself and continue the conversation. If they’re having trouble understanding a certain word or phrase, try using a different word, rephrasing what you said, or typing it in your phone.

Resist the urge to give up when misunderstandings happen. A little effort on your part can make a big difference to somebody else, and you’ll benefit from the experience, too.