Fact Sheet: Communication tips

You can converse with Deaf people, just like with hearing people

A conversation with a Deaf person is the same as having a conversation with a hearing person – the difference is only the method used. Like hearing people, Deaf people are unique individuals with interesting qualities and skills. They have families, jobs and hobbies.

You can communicate with Deaf people in several ways – including New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL), spoken English or a mixture of both. Appropriate use of gesture, body language and facial expressions can also be very effective, as Deaf people communicate visually.

Not all Deaf people can lip read – it is estimated that 70 percent of lip reading is guesswork, even if the speaker articulates clearly.

Communication tips:

  • Face the Deaf person and get their attention before speaking. Remember to maintain eye contact. Don’t turn away when watching them sign to you.
  • If you didn’t understand what a person signed to you get them to sign it again. It’s okay to check, clarify, tell them to slow down.
  • Keep lips and face clear of obstruction (e.g. hands, cups, large moustaches, etc).
  • Deaf people ask for attention by waving, stamping, touching or tapping one another, or switching lights on and off.
  • In conversation, every contact is very important and people need sufficient personal space for arm movements.
  • Deaf people can’t interrupt conversations the way hearing people can. They need to see what is being said, so they can only pay attention to one person at a time. Deaf people wait for the person who is signing stops before the next person signs.
  • Dim light makes it hard to see facial expressions and sign language. Make sure the light is in front of you – try not to stand in front of a window.
  • Avoid background noise when communicating with someone with a hearing aid.
  • Speak clearly and a little more slowly and rephrase rather than repeat.
  • Use simple gestures, write information down and point of indicate subjects or objects.
  • Learn NZSL!

Interupting a conversation:

  • Wait for a small pause before interrupting.
  • Wave or tap the shoulder lightly and then wait for the person to look.
  • If it is urgent, tap harder.
  • Before breaking off a conversation, tell the person you are talking with to ‘hold’, or point to the interruption so they can see why you will look away.
  • Deaf people get annoyed when they are signing and the other person looks away breaking eye gaze. That is not a polite way to handle an interruption.
  • When two people are signing, it is alright to walk quickly between them. It is not necessary to bend down.

Where possible, book an NZSL interpreter. It is the right of a Deaf person to have access to information in their first/primary language – NZSL. If time does not permit you to book an interpreter, the tips will help you mix easily with Deaf people, even if you don’t know NZSL.

It is helpful to recognize that NZSL is the first language of many Deaf people. Other languages including written and oral English are their second and assumption should not be made that all Deaf people can speak, write or understand English.

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