Deaf Awareness – A Perspective from Life in UNISEL – Deaf Art by Chuck Baird

Deaf Awareness.

Helen Keller, a deaf-blind American author, once said; “I have always thought it would be a blessing if each person could be blind and deaf for a few days during his early adult life. Darkness would make him appreciate sight; silence would teach him the joys of sound.” Have you ever thought of the possibility of going deaf in one ear or both? How would it affect your lifestyle and the way others treated you?

In a survey done by the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) in 2008, Malaysia was reported to have 29,522 Deaf people. However, this number probably does not include those with partial or mild hearing loss.

In June, I attended a beginner’s class in sign language organized by the Young Men’s Christian Association Kuala Lumpur (YMCA KL). From my research and interaction with the Deaf community, I have found that there still remains a general ambiguity and uncertainty on how to deal with the Deaf. Today, I will expose you to the different terms related to deafness, common misconceptions about deafness and tips on one-on one communication with a deaf person. Let’s begin by examining a few terms related to deafness.

Now, what are the differences between the terms Deaf (with a capital “D”), deaf (the “d” is lowercase), hard of hearing, and hearing impaired?

“Deaf” refers to the members of the Deaf community who share common values, norms, traditions, language and behaviors. Deaf people do not think of themselves as handicapped, impaired or disabled. They have their own unique culture and language, just like the rest of Malaysian society.

Deaf and hard of hearing people have the right to choose what they wish to be called. Overwhelmingly, they prefer to use the specific terms ‘deaf’ and ‘hard of hearing’.

The term ‘deaf’ and ‘hard of hearing’ encompasses many groups of people, most of who do not identify themselves as part of the Deaf culture. Some may know sign language but their primary language is the spoken language e.g. English or Malay. They usually have mild, moderate or severe hearing loss but choose to associate mainly with hearing people.

The term ‘hearing impaired’ is considered offensive to the deaf because it implies that they are not up to the ‘hearing’ society’s standard. Deaf people believe that there is nothing wrong with them, and their culture, language and society are just as important as the ones experienced by the mainstream society. Just as ‘deaf-mute’ and ‘deaf and dumb’ are offensive labels, ‘hearing impaired’ is an outdated way to label people with any level of hearing loss. Unfortunately, the mainstream Malaysian media still uses this term due to their ignorance.

What are the common misconceptions about deafness? From a survey done with my classmates, I have found quite a few mistaken beliefs regarding the Deaf.

Firstly, not all deaf people can lip read as it is a difficult skill to master. Moreover, only about 26-30% of speech is visible on the lips, and even the best lip readers can’t interpret everything that is being said.

Second, deaf persons are not ‘mute’ as they have normal vocal organs. Some prefer not to use their voices due to shyness or worry that they have inappropriate pitch and volume.

Eight out of twelve of  you believe that deaf people are not distracted when they work in a noisy environment. This is not true as most deaf persons still have some hearing left and they might be sensitive to sounds and vibrations, especially when they have their hearing aids on.

The fourth misconception is, hearing aids and cochlear implants restore hearing to normal. I’d like to stress that putting on hearing aids is not the same as wearing glasses. Hearing aids and cochlear implants benefit each deaf person based on the severity of their hearing loss. Some individuals will gain almost normal hearing while others might only be able to hear environmental or background sounds.

Now that you are aware of the misconceptions about deafness, I would like to share with you tips on one-one communication with a deaf person.

It is important to look directly at the person while speaking. Even a slight turn of the head can obscure the deaf person’s vision. Next, speak slowly and clearly; you don’t have to exaggerate your pronunciation of words as this makes lip reading more difficult. A deaf person is most likely to understand when the speaker faces him, and speaks in a clear voice, slightly slower than usual but with normal rhythm, so that the deaf person can both hear and see the speaker.

Life in UNISEL - 'I Love You' in Sign Language

Pantomime, body language and facial expressions are important factors in communication. Be sure to use all of them. For example, an upward movement of the eyebrows indicates a question.

In addition, Deaf people listen with their eyes. Eye contact helps to convey the feeling of direct communication. From the Deaf perspective, the lack of eye contact shows indifference.

Finally, don’t be embarrassed about communication via pen and paper. It’s okay to write to a Deaf person, and they will appreciate the effort. This is what I usually did in sign language class if I had lost all means to communicate with my teacher.

In review, we now know that “Deaf”, deaf, hard of hearing and hearing impaired all have different meanings. We also know tips on communicating with a deaf person. So, the next time you encounter a deaf person, I’ll hope you’ll remember what you’ve learned and treat the Deaf with the respect they deserve. As Gil Eastman; a former Gallaudet Theatre Art Professor stated; “It is interesting to see that deaf people can function in the hearing world very well while hearing people can’t function well in the deaf world.”


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2 Responses to Deaf Awareness – A Perspective from Life in UNISEL – Deaf Art by Chuck Baird

  1. trabasack says:

    Interesting. I’m updating a post about communication aids for deaf people. I found this really useful.


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