Communicating with Persons Who Are Deaf: Some Practical Suggestions for Rehabilitation Specialists

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Communicating with Persons Who Are Deaf: Some Practical Suggestions for Rehabilitation Specialists

General caseload counselors, vocational evaluators, work adjustment trainers and job placement specialists are occassionally called upon to provide services to individuals who are deaf. Deafness is defined as a condition in which the auditory channel is nonfunctional as the primary modality for language and learning. Because rehabilitation specialists typically do not use sign language and/or are not familiar with strategies that can enhance communication with deaf persons, personal interaction between the two can be limited. The information provided will offer basic and practical strategies for facilitating communication with deaf persons. These strategies are subdivided into those related to physical environment, and those involving personal communication.

Physical Environment

The physical environment can facilitate or hinder communication. Lighting, noise and telephone use are the germane elements of this discussion.

Since persons who are deaf rely on visual cues, appropriate lighting is a necessity. Rooms should be furnished with unflickering and nonglaring illumination. The light should be on the face of the speaker, and not in the eyes of the deaf person. A common error made by hearing persons is to stand or sit in front of a light source (e.g., with one's back to a window). This creates a silhouette effect that results in masked facial expressions or lip movements (Birch, 1975; Gildston, 1973). Another common error is to turn lights off when showing films or video tapes. This impedes deaf individuals' abilities to see the faces of persons making comments about the film or to see interpreters clearly. A solution to this problem is to keep some lights on or to open a window curtain (Kampfe, 1984).

Noise typically interferes with the ability to understand speech (Birch, 1975; Gengel, 1971; Tillman, Carhart, & Olsen, 1970). Mechanical equipment and building noises, movement of chairs, background music, and buzzing lights can all impede speech discrimination. This is especially true for persons with sensorineural hearing losses (Gengel, 1971), and for those wearing hearing aids (Stassen, 1973). A sensorineural impairment involves a loss of both loudness and clarity of speech. The greater the loss, the more distortion (Leavitt, 1984). The distortion becomes even greater in a noisy environment. Hearing aids amplify room noises in addition to speech sounds. This amplified noise results in a masking of speakers' voices (Leavitt, 1984).

Noise can be controlled by avoiding rooms that are large and echoing or that have hard, smooth surfaces (Gelfand & Hochberg, 1976). The noise levels of these and other rooms can be lessened by covering surfaces such as walls, ceilings, floors, furniture and windows with noise absorbing materials such as draperies, textured wallpaper or plaster, upholstery, carpeting and/or acoustical tile (Stassen, 1973). Mechanical noises can be minimized by removing, padding or oiling equipment. Since it may not be reasonable for rehabilitation specialists to attempt this, other strategies may need to be employed. For example, it may be helpful to seat deaf persons from sources of noise or to select rooms located away from heavy traffic areas. Since this is not always possible, notices can be posted requesting silence and/or coworkers can be informed, personally, of the need for quiet halls outside the rooms being used (Kampfe, 1984).

Many rehabilitation specialists contact their clients via telephone. This may create a problem in communication because the telephone is typically difficult or impossible for deaf persons to use. There are several strategies that can alleviate this problem. Using a telecommunication device, sometimes called a TDD or a TTY, is perhaps the most ideal strategy at the present time. This device allows the speaker and the deaf person to communicate over regular telephone lines by typing messages to one another (New technolgoy, 1988). …