Earlier we spoke about general myths that many have about the deaf, and one area that people tend to have misunderstandings about is lipreading. As one might imagine, it is a very difficult skill to master. For starters, 60% of the English language is simply not visible on the lips, which places one attempting to lip read at a significant disadvantage before they have even begun! If that wasn’t challenging enough, there are several other things to contend with. If you consider the variety in human faces, you have a good idea of what must be overcome… such as fat or thin lips, mustaches and beards or other facial quirks or features. Then of course there are variations in speech, from something as simple as mumbling to more elaborate complications like foreign language speakers. Other obvious issues include the level of lighting in the room, distance from the speaker, how quickly they speak and the extent of their vocabulary.
Now, there are some things that improve the success of the lipreader. One significant factor is how familiar the deaf person is with the topic. Another is how well they know the person they are attempting to lip read. With that in mind, if you don’t know ASL it is still better to gesture than assume that talking to a deaf person is sufficient. This is made worse by the fact that hearing people tend to over exaggerate or talk loud when they are conversing with a deaf or hard of hearing person.
One of the ways that deaf people deal with this situation is to anticipate what people are going to ask or say, keeping in mind the context where the conversation is taking place. For example, if a deaf person were to be pulled over by the police, he or she would predict what the officer was going to ask, such as requesting their driver’s license, vehicle registration and certificate of insurance. Then again, if the officer were to ask something completely random to the situation, like a question about their mother, the deaf person would have difficulty understanding that by lipreading, even with the use of gestures.
Many more examples or explanations could be given, but the main things, as always, is to gain a better understanding of what it is like to be deaf to help inform your interactions with members of the community. Perhaps you might like to try it sometime with a friend by blocking your hearing and seeing if you can repeat back even 10% of what they said? Chances are your struggle to understand will give you yet one more reason to learn American Sign Language!