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Communicating With Deaf Customers

It happened again.

There you were, doing your job, minding your own business. You look up, and there’s a new customer. You ask, “Can I help you?” He points to his chin, and then his ear. You realize he’s Deaf.

How do you communicate with someone who can’t hear you?

Of course you want to provide him with the best possible customer service, as you do for everyone who visits your business. But how?

Of course, in a perfect world, everybody would know sign language. That’s especially true in the Frederick area, because the highest concentration of Deaf people in the country live in the DMV.  This is largely because Gallaudet University, the only university in the world designed for Deaf people, is just 55 miles down the road. But it’s also due to Maryland School for the Deaf, right here in Frederick, which is one of the premier schools for the Deaf in the country.

But you don’t know American Sign Language (ASL.) You wonder how hard it would be to learn. After all, it’s just English on the hands, right?

Actually, it isn’t. ASL is a fully developed language all of itself. It has its own vocabulary, grammar, idioms, humor, and even accents. It isn’t any easier to learn than Spanish or French. However, it is a very beautiful language to watch, even if you don’t fully understand it.

So given that you’re not going to be able to pick up ASL anytime soon, how are you going to help the next Deaf customer who comes into your business? (And why is it “Deaf”, anyway, and not “deaf”?)

There are two views of deafness. Most hearing people think of it as a desperate disability, a catastrophe, a tragedy. But many Deaf people see deafness as a way of life, a culture, a community. They aren’t disabled; they just use a different language. According to this perspective, the problem isn’t that they can’t hear; it’s that so few hearing people sign.

That brings us back to the original problem: how to communicate when you can’t sign and they can’t hear.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Don’t ask if they can lipread. (Virtually all Deaf people can lipread that phrase. And these days, it’s called “speechreading.”) It often surprises hearing people to realize that many Deaf people don’t speechread very well. Even for those who can do it, it’s exhausting. (How well do you speechread?)
  • Write notes. Almost all Deaf people can read and write the local language. But be aware that this is a second language for them, as it were, and they may not write as fluently or as correctly as most hearing people. (How well do you write in your second language?) If it’s easier, you can text them. Or open up your notes app. Or type on a tablet or laptop, and hand it back and forth.
  • Don’t try to sign if you don’t know how, but feel free to gesture and point. It’s not rude to point in ASL; it’s just practical.
  • Maybe learning ASL is too big a task, but you can learn to fingerspell with the ASL alphabet. will teach you that, and lots of other signs, if you’re interested.
  • If it’s going to be a complicated transaction, or it’s going to take a long time, it’s best to get an interpreter. Yes, it costs money; and no, it’s not cheap. But good communication is worth it. Sometimes bad communication is worse than no communication.

The most important thing is to TRY. Remember that most Deaf folks deal with hearing people all the time, and they’re accustomed to it. Generally they appreciate any efforts to provide equal access and service. Do your best, and don’t panic.

You’ll be glad you did. And so will your customer.

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