Deaf Culture: What You Need To Know When Communicating With A Deaf Person

The word ‘deaf’ is commonly associated with hearing loss or the state of someone’s audiological abilities. But deaf with a capital D or Deaf refers to individuals who identify with the Deaf Culture. 

The Deaf Culture is knowledge even among normal-hearing individuals who may have Deaf parents or family members or who have gone to specific Deaf schools as a result of experiencing hearing loss and were exposed to the Deaf community. 

What brings Deaf individuals together is that they share the same language. In Malaysia, the language they share is the Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia (BIM).

In Deaf Culture, deafness is embraced and their identity is celebrated, and not regarded as a disability or genetic defect. The Deaf Culture essentially includes practical norms within the deaf community. 

Discrimination Towards The Deaf

The Persons With Disabilities (PwDs) community have often been discriminated against due to the lack of awareness by the general public.  

Audism is a set of beliefs and attitudes against deaf individuals or those who are hard of hearing.

Audism is a form of prejudice, discrimination or unwillingness to accommodate those who cannot hear. Sadly, the public and institutions still lack awareness of audism. – Melina Sylvia An, a Deaf insurance underwriter[1]

Audism also includes beliefs that people with normal hearing are superior to the Deaf and that the Deaf community should instead strive to be more similar to the hearing community (in appearance, communication and language use). Therefore, those who take on the stance of audism believe that sign language should not be a mode of communication. 

Connect Better With The Deaf Community 

While most of us do not identify as someone with audism behaviours or mindset, it is safe to say that most of us are not aware of the communication etiquette when connecting with a Deaf person. 

There may have been occasions when we have encountered a Deaf person and felt out of place because we just didn’t know what to do or how to behave around them. If that was the case, this guide will help you the next time you come across a Deaf individual. The Deaf Culture is knowledge for everyone and anyone, young and old.

Source: The Star

#1: Get their attention

DO:

>> Stand in their field of view and wave a hand in front of them. You can also give them a gentle tap on the shoulder while you are standing in front of them[2]

>> Flicking the lights off and on, alternatively using your mobile torchlight helps to get their attention in a distance or in a crowded room[2].

#2: When communicating

DO:

>> Choose a quiet place with minimal visual distraction and let the Deaf individual choose their seat first[3]

>> In a one-to-one conversation, move aside objects that sit between both of you to ensure the visual field of your face and hands are not obstructed[3]

>> Even if you don’t know the exact signs, utilise your physical expressiveness to convey your tone. Use of your facial expressions and body language when gesturing. Miming the shapes and actions of things can also be helpful[3]

>> When in a group conversation, acknowledge the presence of the Deaf person by using a pen and paper to explain what is being said to them[1]

>> Maintain eye contact and if you’re in a group setting, ensure only one person is talking at one time. Be patient as Deaf individuals require attention and focus when communicating[3]

>> In large-scale events, get an interpreter to help with communication[1].

DON’T:

>> Do not shout and rush your speech, it would only fatigue the Deaf individual who is trying to understand you[3].

Some people might be uncomfortable when confronted with people with disabilities. One of the possible reasons is that some people feel sorry for them and assume they are bitter about their disabilities. This is untrue in many cases. Many people with disabilities feel enriched by their experiences with disability, and even if given the chance to erase their disability, they would choose not to. – Mohd Firdaus Abdullah[5]

#3: If you can’t get your message across

DO:

>> Direct their attention to your lips by pointing to it. Deaf individuals are able to comprehend words and speech through lip reading. If they are comfortable with lip reading, ensure you are speaking at a normal rate and loudness.

>> Repeat and change your words if they can’t understand your choice of words[3].

>> Write down some keywords if needed to help them understand better[3].

>> If communicating with sign language, lip reading or facial expressions fail – try using pen and paper to write it in words or drawings.

#4: Remain sensitive to the words you choose to use

DO:

>> Respect them as a person. A Deaf person may not be able to hear but he is not mute. Mute means absence of sound or volume. Deaf individuals are able to laugh and cry, and the term dumb or mute is hurtful to them[1]

People can learn Malaysian Sign Language (Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia) and take time to learn to understand the Deaf community. – Melina Sylvia An, a deaf insurance underwriter[1]

DON’T:

>> Make insensitive remarks or backhanded compliments such as, “You can make coffee quite well for someone who is Deaf“. It can come off as patronising and condescending[6]

>> Never assume that they are unable to do certain things, they may be Deaf but are fully capable of learning like any of us. 

>> Don’t amplify their disabilities through comments such as: “Oh! I’m so sorry you are deaf. Poor thing”. Show empathy rather than sympathy is more desirable. [6]

I hope that they understand that I was born Deaf. So, accept me for who I am. –  Faizal, who works as a barista in RCDM Cafe in Kelana Jaya[7]

#5: Learn BIM and more about the deaf community

>> Enrol in workshops and classes teaching simple BIM at Open Learning, YMCA KL, RC Deaf Missions Malaysia, and the Malaysian Federation for the Deaf (MDF). Learning their language is the first step in understanding the Deaf Culture and seeing the world through their eyes. 

>> Do support social enterprises out there which are helping Deaf individuals earn a livelihood such as DIB RestaurantRC Deaf Missions Cafe and Silent Teddies

Make things more accessible to the Deaf, in the media, public services, employment, education, and also digital solutions. – Melina Sylvia An, a Deaf insurance underwriter[1]

#6: Create an inclusive workplace for the Deaf and the PwD community

In 2008, the Persons with Disabilities (PwD) Act was approved by the Malaysian government as an attempt to improve the livelihood of the community[8]

The government has allocated 1% of civil service jobs to the PwD community[9]. However, a news report in 2015 revealed that only 3741 PwD individuals out of over one million civil servants are working in the public sector[1]


The private sector has also shown a preference for hiring non-disabled graduates, perceiving that the PwD community lacks the competencies to work[9]. However, it is also likely that many employers may lack the necessary knowledge and understanding of the PwD community’s needs. 

Some of the most common assumptions and fears are that people with disabilities are able to perform only routine repetitive jobs, that they have low productivity and a high accident rate, and that adaptations to the workplace will be costly. International Labour Organization[10]

Turning down the deaf community and the PwD community at large before allowing them to show their abilities is discrimination that remains unsolved. Give them a chance, discuss the access and needs they have; work together to bridge the gap. 

DO:

>> If you are a business owner, find ways you can include and help uplift the deaf community or even ease their communication at your establishments. 

>> For private sectors, take a leaf out of one of the largest PwD employers in Malaysia, Flex Malaysia, and establish a partnership with local bodies such as Penang Deaf Association, Johor Deaf Association and JobsMalaysia in their hiring process. 

>> Flex Malaysia goes the extra mile by providing selected staff with sign language training to prepare them to mentor or help new PwD colleagues. The organisation also has a ‘buddy system’ where a normal-bodied staff is paired with a PwD staff to help everyone feel belonged. 

>> The human resources department can play a role in providing close-captioned training videos to aid Deaf individuals during on-the-job training or when delivering important information[11]

>> Make use of assistive technology such as assistive listening devices or sign language apps, and ask if the employee would require a sign language interpreter to ease their communications. 

>> Provide flexible work arrangements to Deaf employees – for example; quieter workspaces with fewer distractions or hybrid working options.

Explore our sources:

  1. S.Chandran. (2021). Five ways to avoid audism. The Star. Link
  2. R.Soon. (2019). Beyond dispensing: A day at a Malaysian medical sign language workshop. MIMS Pharmacy. Link 
  3. N.F.Ismail. (2020).  Tips in Communicating with the Deaf. Myhealth. Link
  4. F.Parker. (2017). 12 things you shouldn’t do when talking to a deaf person. Metro News. Link 
  5. IMU News. (2018). IMU Pharmacy Student Receives Award for Volunteer Work with Disabled People. Link
  6. Ai Media. (n.d.). What is Audism? 5 Examples to Learn and Avoid. Link
  7. Renushara. (2021). “Don’t look down on me” – Malaysian Reveals the Struggles of Being Deaf.  World Of Buzz. Link 
  8. Persons with Disabilities Act (2008). Link
  9. The Star. (2020). Engage with the deaf to solve problems.  Link
  10. International Labour Organization. (2022). EmployAbility: Tapping the potential of persons with disabilities in Asia and the Pacific – A guide for employers. Link 
  11. R.Coventry. (n.d.). 5 things HR staff can do to support Deaf or Hard of Hearing employees. ai-media. Link

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