What hearing teachers should know ...

by: Liesbeth Pyfers, Pragma, www.pragmaprojects.com June 2017


Saying that someone is deaf, is like saying that someone is European or British. It doesn't tell you very much because there are major differences between subgroups.

Not all deaf people use sign language. Someone who becomes deaf later in life, may not learn sign language. Someone who was raised and educated orally may prefer to communicate using lipreading and speech.

Some deaf people can hear - with hearing aids, or Cochlear Implants. They may be able to use the spoken language for communication, but usually only under optimal circumstances: someone who speaks clearly and not too fast, one person speaking at a time, and no background noise.

Some deaf people are comfortable speaking. Others may not want to use their voice.

Don't assume that a deaf participant knows sign language, but ask what his/her preferences are.

Sign Language?

Sign languages are real languages, they are not pantomime or body language. Sign languages have syntactic rules and a lexicon of standardised signs. 

Sign languages are not universal. Every country has its own sign language, and sometimes: more than one sign language.

Sign language is not the same as fingerspelling. Fingerspelling: every letter of a word is spelled, with specific handshapes for letters. Fingerspelling can be used for names and technical terms that the signer may not know the sign for. Fingerspelling is much slower than signing.

Sign languages use a different word-order (sign-order) than spoken languages. You can't use sign language and spoken language, simultaneously. Some people do speak and sign at the same time, but they are using 'Sign Supported Speech', sometimes called Signed English, Signed Dutch, etc. The spoken language is dominant, the speaker visually supports keywords in sentences, to support understanding. 


Deaf persons may be assisted by an interpreter. There are different kinds of interpreters:

  • Sign language interpreters, who translate the spoken language into sign language, and vice versa.
  • Text interpreters, who type out everything a speaker says - often using a special keyboard. The deaf person reads the text from the monitor, from an overhead screen, or from a personal tablet. 
  • Multilingual interpreters, who translate for instance spoken English into Danish sign language, and vice versa. Or: British sign language into Danish sign language. 

In most countries, interpreters have had special training and need special registration/accreditation, to be allowed to work as an interpreter. Not every person who knows sign language can interpret for you!

When you speak with a deaf person who is assisted by an interpreter, remember that the deaf person is your communication partner:

  • Make eye-contact with the deaf person, not with the interpreter.
  • Speak to the deaf person, not to the interpreter.
  • Don't ask the interpreter questions about the deaf person, the interpreter will interpret everything you say!
  • The interpreter can interpret almost simultaneously, with a speaker. You don't have to take turns, as with interpreters of spoken languages.
  • When you are speaking, the deaf person will watch the interpreter. This can be confusing, because it may seem as if the deaf person is not paying attention. But he or she IS paying attention. To be able to understand what you are saying, he or she MUST watch the interpreter. Usually, the interpreter will stand close to you, so that the deaf person can see both you and the interpreter, at the same time. Of course, this is not possible, when the interpreter has to interpret for several hearing persons.
  • When you are assisted by a sign language interpreter, make sure the interpreter can hear you. Don't speak too fast. Don't be upset when the interpreter asks you to slow down, or to repeat what you said.
  • When you ask a group a question or tell a joke: be aware that the interpreter may lag behind some seconds or sentences. Because of this, the deaf people will respond a bit later than hearing people. Not because deaf people are slow or don't understand, but because they depend on the interpreter.
  • When you use PowerPoint, video, or other visuals: be aware that the deaf people have their eyes focused on the interpreter. Allow extra time for them to watch the interpreter, then your visuals, and then the interpreter again. 

When a deaf person asks for an interpreter, discuss with him/her what kind of interpreter is needed, who will hire the interpreter, and: who will pay for the interpreter. In some countries, educational institutions have a legal obligation to provide the interpreter(s) that a deaf person needs. In other countries, social services or health insurance companies will pay for the interpreter.

Interpreters are human beings, they bleed when scratched, and they will break down when they have to interpret for a long time, and/or under difficult circumstances. In many instances, you will need two interpreters who take turns. Explain the job to the interpreter or the interpreter agency. They will tell you if you'll need to hire more than one interpreter.

Interpreters like to be prepared, especially if they have to interpret formal presentations or any kind of talk about a specialised subject. When you use PowerPoint or handouts: send these to the interpreter(s), preferably several days before the date of the training, meeting or presentation. 

For fun: some interpreter humour (British Sign Language and English subtitles). Written and produced by Ben Green, BSL interpreter.

Eye Contact!

When you are speaking with a hearing person, you would never plug in earphones or stick your fingers in your ears. Very impolite!

Deaf people use their eyes for communication. For them, it is very impolite NOT to watch them, when they are signing or speaking to you. Don't look away to admire the surroundings, or to wave at a friend. Don't look at your phone or iPad, don't look at your notes or start writing them. The deaf person will assume that you have stopped listening, even though you can still hear the interpreter.

When you HAVE to respond to some auditory signal - a fire alarm, a doorbell, someone calling your name - always explain to the deaf person why you are looking over your shoulder or walking away: "Sorry, fire alarm! We've got to get out of the building!"

Reading & Writing?

When you've never heard the spoken language, never heard the voices of your parents or other adults, never heard your own voice, then the national language is more difficult than a foreign language. It is as difficult as inaudible Chinese is to hearing people who don't know Chinese.. 

Many deaf people are not comfortable using a spoken language. They cannot speak it, they cannot hear it. Lipreading is very, very difficult and mostly a guessing game. 

In school, deaf children learn to read and write. But with no or limited knowledge of the spoken language, learning to read and write is very difficult. You have to learn to read Chinese, with no or very limited prior knowledge of that language.

As a consequence, many deaf people are 'functionally illiterate'. They can read street signs, simple messages. But they have problems reading longer and/or more complicated texts.

When they write, they may use the word order that they use in sign language or they make mistakes with function words or tenses, because these cannot be translated 1-1 from sign language.

Do not assume that a deaf person has language problems when he/she makes mistakes in reading or writing or refuses to read and write. He or she is not dyslexic, is not an education drop-out or failure. He or she will be perfectly fine when a sign language is used. And no, unfortunately, there is no generally accepted writing system for sign languages. To make written texts accessible for deaf non-readers, texts have to be translated into sign language. If this is not possible, make sure that informational texts are easy to read:

  • use relatively short sentences;
  • keep words that belong together, close together in a sentence;
  • use high-frequency words;
  • if you have to use technical terms, jargon or abbreviations: explain what they mean, either in the text or in visually contrasting blocks of text or pictures;
  • present your message in a way that is easy to visualise: as if you're writing a script for a movie. Where, when, who, what?
  • break down long and/or complicated messages into shorter bits. Present these bits in a logical order;
  • add subheadings that will visually break a longer story into smaller, easy to manage paragraphs;
  • use subheadings that tell the reader what a paragraph is about.
  • if possible: add a short 'intro' to chapters and sections, so that the reader can activate the correct prior knowledge;
  • use a visually interesting, 'light' lay-out;
  • add visuals to support or explain the meaning of paragraphs or words.

Same AND different!

Deaf people may tell you that deaf people can do everything that hearing people can, except hear. Or sometimes: except play the violin. Yes, that is true, just check out the professions of the deaf entrepreneurs on this website. 

On other occasions, deaf people will tell you that they are different from hearing people. They are visual people; Deaf culture is different; sign language is different, the Deaf community is different. As a result, they may prefer deaf teachers, deaf colleagues, deaf role models. Because only deaf people know what it is like to be deaf.

Both statements are true, there is no contradiction. When hearing people are in a foreign country, especially in a country with an inaccessible language, they are often happy when they meet countrymen; if they can choose colleagues or teachers abroad, many will prefer people who share their background, language. 

Don't be upset if a deaf person tells you that he or she would prefer a deaf teacher. Just change perspective. Imagine you find yourself in a group of sign language users, with a teacher who only uses sign language. If given a choice, wouldn't YOU sometimes long for hearing classmates, a hearing teacher?

Foreign languages?

Deaf people may not be comfortable using their national spoken or written language; foreign languages may present even more problems. 

Deaf people who went to special schools for the deaf may have had little or no instruction in foreign languages. Learning a foreign language after age 20 (and some say: after age 12) is very difficult for anyone. If your first language is a sign language, learning to read and write a foreign language is even more difficult. 

Lipreading a foreign language is almost impossible. 

Do not assume that deaf students can read English or other foreign languages.

On the other hand: most deaf sign language users are very good at learning foreign sign languages, and at communicating with sign language users from other countries. 


Hearing participants can write and take notes, while they listen to you or each other. Deaf participants will have to keep their eyes focused on the interpreter and can't take notes at the same time.

Some deaf students use a professional note-taker. Other options: ask one of the other participants to share their notes with the deaf person. And/or give the deaf person a copy of your personal notes.

Seating arrangements

Deaf persons need full visual access to you, to a smartboard of flipchart, and to the other participants. The best seating arrangement for full participation, engagement and access for the deaf person is to arrange chairs or desks in a "C" or ā€œUā€ shape. This will allow the deaf person to see who is speaking and to participate fully in discussions.

When you are talking - don't walk back and forth too much. It will make it more difficult for the deaf person to keep track of you.

Group discussions, question and answer sessions, any activity that asks for student participation: make sure that the deaf person knows who is talking. Ask participants to raise their hand when they want to say something; ask everyone to wait for their turn and not to speak all at the same time; point to the person whose turn it is, and in larger groups: ask the person to stand up, before he/she starts talking.

Lighting is important too - the interpreter must be well-lit! Even when you are showing a video or want to create a cosy atmosphere.

Things Not to Say To a Deaf Person

OK, this one is not our own, we found it on YouTube. We fully agree!
(BSL with English subtitles)



Print Email

Log in