10 Things You Should Never Say to a Deaf Person

We all occasionally say things we really wish we hadn’t, especially when meeting new people.  For some reason, meeting a deaf person seems to really bring out those moments in people.  In the hopes of helping you avoid these embarrassing moments, I’m sharing 10 things you should never say when meeting a deaf person.  All of which, in case you’re wondering, have been said to me. And my friends. More than once.

1 – Oh, I’m sorry. (And then walking away.)

Deaf people are really not that scary. When someone tells you they can’t hear you, try making sure you’re looking directly at the person when you talk to them.  Speak clearly, but don’t exaggerate your lip movements.  Or, hey, get a piece of paper or use your phone to write down what you’re saying.

2 – How do you drive? 

I use my eyes. How do YOU drive??  I’m amazed at how many people think that deaf people cannot–or should not–get their driver’s license.  Studies have shown that deaf drivers are no more likely to get in to an accident than hearing drivers, and actually tend to have lower accident rates.

3 – Can you read?

I have now been asked this twice, once at the doctor’s office and once at the DMV.  My Deaf friends have told me they get asked this all the time.  On one hand, I understand the question- after all, English might not be my primary or first language.  On the other… guess what? Deaf people go to school, have jobs, and do everything that their hearing pals do.  Oh, except hear. Assuming that deaf people can’t read is just insulting.

4 – Oh, I know exactly what you mean.  I think I have hearing loss, too – I have a hard time understanding people sometimes. You know, like at concerts and monster truck rallies.

Seriously, why is it that everyone I meet suddenly has hearing loss? Not being able to hear people talking when you’re in a loud environment is not exactly the same thing as being deaf or hard of hearing. I understand that people’s first instinct is to try to find common ground, and connect.  I recognize that this statement is supposed to show understanding and support.  That said, it usually comes across as dismissive, and completely misses the point.  When someone is telling you that they need you to look at them when you’re speaking because they can’t hear you, they’re not looking for you to say you know all about it.  They’re just trying to let you know what they need in order to understand you.  Do that.

5 – Oh, but you can lipread, right? Neat. Can you tell what the guy across the room is saying?

To this I say, lip reading is NOT a super power.  No, I cannot tell what that guy is saying from across the room. It’s hard enough figuring out what’s going on in the conversation I’m currently having, thanks.  Also, stop being a snoop.

6 – Oh, I’m so sorry.  Losing my hearing would be the worst thing in the world.

It has its down sides, for sure, but really it’s not that bad.  This response makes me feel like I’m something to be pitied, and completely dismisses the awesomeness of Deaf culture.  Even if you’re thinking this, please don’t say it. Just don’t.

7 – But, you have hearing aids. 

Yep, I do. They’re pretty awesome, and I’m glad I have them, but they’re not miracle devices.  They don’t suddenly “cure” my hearing loss. I still need to read lips or use ASL to know what people are saying.  They tell me THAT people are talking, but it’s like catching shadows of words. I have to fill in the blanks.  If someone has hearing aids, don’t assume that they can hear things–or that they can’t, for that matter.

8 – Oh, are you going to get that implant thing to fix your hearing?

I’ve had people launch in to how the cochlear implant is a miracle within 3 minutes of meeting me.  They’re usually basing this on a) seeing Ellen talk about it on TV and b) the fact that they like hearing birds chirp, or whatever. The decision to get a cochlear implant is a big one, and involves a lot of factors that you probably aren’t aware of if you haven’t been around the Deaf community for very long.  Besides the fact that this question assumes that something is wrong with me that needs to be fixed, it’s a really personal, complicated question.  If you’re going to ask someone about CI, please be sensitive to that.  And maybe wait until you’ve known the person a while before you bring it up.

9 – But you don’t sound deaf.

Of all the things said to me on a daily basis, this is the one that drives me the most crazy. This is the reason I usually go voice off in public, like at the grocery store.  People have a hard time understanding that just because I have good speech quality does not mean I can hear.  It makes me feel like I need to explain myself – no, really, grocery store clerk, I’m not purposely ignoring you, I just can’t hear you. Closely related to this one is…

10 – Wow, your speech is really good!

I get this well-meaning comment from almost everyone I meet – even interpreters sometimes say this to me.  There are several reasons why you should never say this to someone.  For one thing, it makes the person feel awkward and self-conscious. For another, the underlying message is that speaking skills are to be highly valued, and praised.  It implies that people who don’t have clear speech are less intelligent, capable, or aren’t trying hard enough.

This comment makes me feel like I’m being patted on the back.  I didn’t do anything special to earn my speaking skills. My speech says nothing about my intelligence or abilities.  I just happened to grow up with enough residual hearing to make speech work for me.  In some ways, my clear speech is a drawback – it makes it that much harder for other people to understand my deafness.

Have you ever said something you wished you could take back?  What are some awkward/awful things people have said to you?

371 thoughts on “10 Things You Should Never Say to a Deaf Person

  1. Sondra Lane

    I am physically handicapped and can’t walk so I know how some people can say things that are offensive to the disabled. My “favorite” is “I’m sorry you can’t walk.” Of course in my situation it’ is not only things people say, but their actions that can be offensive. I’ve had people go out of their way to run ahead of me and open automatic doors when I have 2 good hands that I can clearly use to push those buttons myself. Or people not accepting the word “NO” when asking if I need help. I try to be as independent as I can and unless I ask for help, I don’t really need it. When I was in driver’s ed in 11th grade my teacher said something to the affect of never assume because “it makes an ass out of you and me”, and I find that in my daily life that is more than true.

  2. Crystal

    Really Well said!! I’ve been born deaf and wore hearing aids all my life and now I’m wearing hearing aid on one side and cochlear implants done on the other side I do really speak well and I truly agreed some hearing people have no idea what’s like being deaf as they don’t born deaf and had to learn to talk and use sign language do they? Not like us really I’m proud to be deaf cos I had worked really hard like all of u deaf people even though day to day I find it a struggle trying to understand what they’re saying to me I even work too and in my job I always tell them I’m deaf and ask my clients to look at me when they want to talk to me and I am happy for some to accept and even look at me when they talked I am even involved in deaf community have many deaf friends plus my family are all hearing I use sign language in deaf community and use oral at home so for some of u hearing people thinking u do understand deaf people no u don’t unless u approach to any one of them or even have deaf friends or relative plus even learning to sign u might understand how the deaf culture is I am truly appreciated what u have said on here to let them know about us so I want to say Thankyou !!

  3. Ark420

    Hi all, I am a hearing person and I’m not exactly sure how I got here =p It’s been very interesting to read through and I totally agree that the way language is used has a profound effect on the way a comment is received and can actually influence the perception of what you mean even if it is unintentional. However, this is true of ALL conversations. The ones that make me the angriest are between parents and their children, I know they dont know what they’re doing but they are shaping the childs brain and quite often you can read ‘between the lines’ and get an insight into how the parents are really thinking. My point is, when people unintentionally insult you by trying to compliment your speech or connect which you in some way they are treating you the same as everybody else.

    You are assuming that because someone compliments you on your speech they view other deaf people as having speech impediments, that sounds like YOUR problem. Then in another reply you say that you cant compare it to complimenting a learned accent because that is within your control, again implying an ‘impediment.’

    Here’s the fact: I have met many deaf people and been close to a couple. I have yet to meet a deaf person who can speak the same as a hearing person, if I have I didn’t get to know them well enough to know that they were deaf. When being introduced to a deaf person I wouldnt expect them to talk exactly as a hearing person would simply because this is not my experience. I dont think it would occur to me to comment how good their speech is but I would be interested enough to ask about it and personally I dont see how this is offensive, it is just the way it is.

    If people are ignorant, that has nothing to do with you, they are simply being as careless in speech with you as they are with everyone else they meet and they would make this known to you sooner or later whether you could hear or not. I have days when I’m untactful and my friends understand this though strangers do not and may judge me by this. I have known what it is like to feel different for so long just to find out there’s no such thing. When people start watching what they say and refusing to joke about me again I shall start worrying =p Sorry for the long reply.

  4. Vivian Odimegwu N

    I am a deaf lady, i lost my hearing at the age of 5yrs old, I can not hear as I speak very small , but I can read through my parent, brothers and sister’s mouth and cannot understand what they are talking or telling with their mouth , if I dont understand them they will put it in write to make me read and understand and sometime they speak to me during darkness, it can make deaf pple receive an angry because they cannot hear or read their mouth. Ok

  5. Holier than thou

    This article taught me that deaf people are so easily offended that it is better to ignore them than to risk saying something offensive.

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