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Meeting and Interacting with Deaf people: 
"When and how to approach a Deaf person"

By Belinda G. Vicars, MA

In a thread today, we were discussing interaction with the Deaf. I want to expand a little bit on that. Be forewarned, this article is long. Please note, however, that this is just one perspective, and what I have to say is not necessarily "the rule."  Multiple points of view from various native Deaf are always a good idea.

Also this is not meant to discourage you from interacting with the Deaf, but rather to consider the time and place, and whether or not you are ready.

Here's the deal: You are just learning sign language and barely know the alphabet, do NOT head out to the next Deaf event and sit down at the table with the a bunch of Deaf people and start fingerspelling your name at a snail pace. Why? It's painful. It's like sticking a needle in my eye.

Let me explain.

Think of the autobahn, the highway system in Germany. There's no speed limit on that highway. Now imagine as a motorist, you don't have access to the highway very often. Once a month, maybe? Most of the time, you're doing the putt-putt on the backroads. But then you get the chance, that ONE time, that month you get to go on the highway and drive fast, and you get stuck behind a big semi going 25 miles per hour and you can't pass that big guy for the next 75 miles miles. That's stroke inducing torture.

Deaf people, on a daily basis, communicate with hearing people on hearing people terms. Deaf people must be able to lipread to some extent, and must be able to write in order to communicate with the public. It's a snail pace all the way. But we do it, because what else can we do? Then a Deaf event comes along, and by golly, we get to hang out with our Deaf friends and talk at our speed. Zoom. Hands fly. That all comes to halt when a beginning sign language student approaches the group and starts to painfully fingerspell his or her name. You've successfully hijacked a group of Deaf people. Not cool. As a policy, I never require my ASL 1 and 2 students to attend a Deaf event and require them to talk to a Deaf person. That starts in ASL 3.

So what are you options?

If you are a beginning student, practice like crazy. Here's what you need to do:

FINGERSPELLING: Know the manual alphabet. You do NOT want to have think about the next letter. Know it backwards and forwards. ( Practice your receptive fingerspelling skills ( Gradually up the speed and the word length until you get to 7-8 letter words and DEAF speed. (That's the goal). When you at medium or fast speed (preferably fast), you can then start fingerspelling to a Deaf person. If you're still on the slow setting, you need to hold off a little bit.
BASIC VOCABULARY: If you are going to go to a Deaf event, such as Bingo night - know your numbers. Study the numbers like crazy. Also know the standard introductory vocabulary. You need to be able introduce yourself. HI, MY NAME BOB.

You also need to be able to respond to questions. Every Deaf person, no matter who you talk to, will want to know if you are Deaf or Hearing. So your next phrase to learn is:

Then they are going to know WHY you are learning sign language and WHERE you learning sign language. You need to be able answer that reasonably well.
They will also want to know who you know in the Deaf community.

TARGET VOCABULARY If you are going to bowling gig, study up on the bowling vocabulary. Or a softball game, study up on those signs.

Now you're all set - you're armed with the right number words (there's never the right of words - but enough, anyway), now what.

Go to a Deaf event and order some coffee and SIT. Watch. If you see someone you understand and is not in the middle of a conversation with another person, then by all means introduce yourself. It's okay, it's part of the gig. We expect hearing students to do that. But minimize the effect of using them as practice tools. Practice beforehand as much as possible.

If you are out in public and you just happen to see a Deaf person signing with another person, should you go up to them and say "hi?" That depends. I never do and I'm Deaf. If it's someone I know, sure. Once in a while, if the setting is just right, I'll chat and ask something innocuous - like where's the milk? (Even if I know where the milk is). You'd have approach it like you're trying to find a date in the grocery store.

If you are working, and you know some sign, YES!! Sign HI, I WORK HERE. IF YOU NEED ANYTHING, LET ME KNOW. That simple. I can feel my whole body light up when I meet someone at the DMV, the doctor's office, or the store, and they know sign. But they keep it brief, like how they would with a hearing person.
Long answer, but hopefully this helps. It's not complete, but it covers some of the basics. If you have more questions, ask away and I'll try to answer them.
- Belinda


Also see:  Meeting Deaf People
Also see:  What now? (Next steps after you have basic conversational ability in ASL.)
Also see:  Negotiating a Conversation with a Deaf person


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