For those of you who already know me, I’m profoundly deaf and wear a cochlear implant and a hearing aid. For those of you who don’t–now you know! Many don’t, particularly if I wear my hair down. I talk quite normally thanks to the cochlear implant, and I hear well enough to “pass” for hearing. However, I struggle in some situations, and people get frustrated and say, “Never mind, it wasn’t important,” or assume I’m stupid or rude.
Deafness is an invisible disability. It’s easy to remember to make sure that there are ramps and elevators for people using crutches or wheelchairs. It’s easy to be aware of the blind person navigating the library with a cane or a seeing eye dog. But it’s not so easy to be aware that someone is deaf unless they have short hair and colorful, clearly visible earmolds.
Fortunately, it is fairly easy to accommodate the needs of deaf and hard of hearing people, making them feel more welcome in the library. I can write at length on the subject, but for now, I’ll give you tips on two things: communication and accessibility of library programs and services.
First, you DON’T have to know sign language, either ASL or SEE, in order to communicate with the culturally Deaf people who communicate primarily through sign. Is it useful? Undoubtedly yes. But not every library branch has an employee that can sign. And unlike, say, finding Spanish speakers for predominately Hispanic neighborhoods, there are no “Deaf” neighborhoods to relocate these signing staff to. It probably wouldn’t be feasible to be sure to train at least one staff member at each library location to know ASL.
And besides, not every deaf person knows sign language. I didn’t learn it in any real, systematic way until I started college; my parents raised me as hearing. Many others are late-deafened (think about your grandparents) and still prefer to communicate aurally and verbally. And many others are only mildly to moderately deaf, and have had little difficulty with hearing.
So, how can you communicate with deaf people?
First, get their attention. Don’t flap around like a crazy person, or else we’ll ignore you out of embarrassment. But if you don’t have our attention, waving your hands is okay. Light touching on our arms are okay. Then start talking. Normally. Oh, please don’t try to move your lips in an exaggerated manner. It’s like trying to listen to someone who is talking while his mouth is full of marshmallows. Yelling doesn’t help either. It’s hard to understand overly loud speaking, the same way it’s hard to drink from a fountain if it’s shooting at your mouth like a fire hydrant geyser. Just talk normally. Easy, right?
Background noise freaking sucks. I’ve heard that hearing people can somehow “pick out sounds” and focus on it even if there is some background noise. It’s a mythical concept to me. So, if it gets temporarily loud in the library, pause during the loud noises, and repeat what you said as needed. Sometimes you might repeat things two or three times, so be patient. A trick some people use after the second repetition is to rephrase the sentence. Use synonyms. Reorder the sentence. “Are you looking for a specific breed?” can become, “What dog breed are you looking for?” and it can finally help make the sentence click in our minds.
If verbal communication is exceedingly difficult, or if you’re talking to a completely deaf person, use writing tools. The traditional means of communication can be a pencil and paper, though it can be annoying to both sides. Here’s another idea: Use Word on your computer. Turn the screen around so both of you can see it. Bring up Word or Google Docs in a separate window. Type what you need to say. We’ll tell you verbally in return. Or if they are completely deaf, let them use the keyboard to type what they need to say. Turning the screen around during reference and circulation transactions helps anyway.
Other communication tips
Hopefully your library has a TTY number and if you’re more forward-looking, chat assistance. Some deaf people use a relay service when calling, so be aware of that. Though, personally, relay SUCKS anytime there is a phone tree, so please have other contact options. Be sure to provide email addresses on your library websites for reference and circulation, or have an online contact form. Some deaf people do call. I do, with great reluctance. So please be patient and ready to repeat and rephrase things.
Library Programs/Services Accessibility
Now that we’ve covered the basics of communications, can you see where some of the problem areas might be for library programs and services? How you accommodate the deaf and hard of hearing can greatly depend on the library’s budget and grant income. Here are your options, from cheapest to more expensive:
Priority seating. Save some seats near the front where us deaf and HOH folks can read the speaker’s lips. Be sure to remind the speaker to always face the audience when talking, otherwise it doesn’t help at all. Make sure we know that those seats exist.
Printed transcript. If at all possible, procure and print some copies of the transcript, speakers’ notes, etc, and have them on hand for when people ask, so they can read and follow along during the program.
Captioning for online video/audio resources. It is possible to do this yourself thanks to YouTube. If you can’t afford the staff time, post the transcript. If you can afford the time, have someone upload the transcript to YouTube’s automatic caption-fier. Then go through and correct the text, since YouTube uses a combination of your transcript and it’s voice recognition to create the caption file, and voice recognition isn’t the best. Another option is to outsource the captioning to a company for video posted elsewhere that does not have caption service. There are many companies, big and small, but here’s a couple of examples to give you an idea: Vitac, AmeriCaption, CaptionMax.
CART captioning. Court reporters often make a little extra money using their equipment and skill to create real-time captioning. The downside to this is that, as far as I know, it serves only one or two deaf people at a time.
Sign language interpreter. In contrast to CART captioning, sign language interpreters can help a larger group of people. Although if you do have a large group of deaf people, getting an interpreter makes more sense than the other options.
There you go! I hope this helps make reaching out to deaf and hard of hearing people less daunting.
Holly Lipschultz is a graduate student in the San José State University School of Library and Information Science and works at the University of Chicago Library. She lives in Chicago, Illinois, with her husband and three cats.