Disability Etiquette, Part 8 – engaging with people with sight or hearing impairments

Teacher writing on blackboard saying "you at the back, read this homework I've set for you" to a bemused blind pupil
Thanks to “Crippen” – http://www.crippencartoons.co.uk

I’m very much enjoying writing this series on “Disability Etiquette” and I hope you are finding it useful.  Much of the areas covered so far have been fairly generic, looking at disability as a whole. But people with different impairments may require specific kinds of help. So the next few blogs in the series will look at people with specific impairments and hopefully help people feel more confident in including such people into their social or working environment.


Previous blogs in the series have covered:

  1. The basics
  2. Terminology
  3. Physical access
  4. Attitudinal barriers
  5. Communication tips
  6. Things not to say to disabled people
  7. Ways to be helpful to disabled people

Today we are going to look specifically at ways of including blind people or people with visual impairment, and deaf people or people with hearing impairment. Remember the golden rule – each disabled person is an individual, and your first action should be to communicate with them to find what they personally find helpful (or not).

People who are blind or visually impaired

First of all, never use the generic term “the blind” – they are people first! Most people with loss of vision are far more independent than we might imagine – whether blind from birth or having acquired sight loss later in life, they have learned to navigate their way around a world geared up for sighted people. The advice below will vary depending on the degree of sight loss, from no vision at all, to various other sight impairments.

When approaching a blind person, introduce yourself, and if you haven’t met before, let them know relevant information about who you are (for example, a receptionist at a doctor’s surgery). If the person is a new customer or new employee, offer to take them on a tour of the building and facilities so they can familiarise themselves with it. If they are a regular customer or employee, ensure they know if you have moved things around. Keep walkways clear of obstructions.

If a blind person requires assistance from you to move around, let them take your arm – don’t take theirs. If they have a guide dog, walk on the opposite side. When you reach your destination in may be helpful to put their hand on a banister or the back of a chair so they know where they are. As you are walking, describe any upcoming obstacles such as a step (“up” or “down”), a low roof, an overhanging plant or a wet floor, for example. Don’t just say “look out” because that doesn’t tell them whether to stop, duck, step up or step down! Offer to read written information if required.

For people with some vision, ensure written information is written in large print with a good colour contrast, preferably on a matt surface. Don’t use all upper case letters because that is harder to read. Consider using Braille where appropriate, although a surprisingly low number of blind people read Braille – make sure there is a need before spending money on it! Ensure the lighting is appropriate – bright enough to see properly without being too bright, and avoid shiny paper or walls.

People who are deaf or hearing impaired

Again every person is different, some people may have no hearing at all and others may have some degree of hearing. Some may use sign language, some may use hearing aids, some may have cochlear implants, some may lip read, some may use written communication. If in doubt, ask how you can be most helpful.

For complex interactions, such as a job interview, it may be necessary to use the services of a professional signer. If this is the case, maintain eye contact with the person you are communicating with, not the signer, and direct your comments to the person (e.g. “how can I help you?” rather than “ask her how I can help her”). For less complex interactions, it may be fine just to write down your comments or questions.

When communicating with someone who lip reads, make sure you have their attention before spekaing, and then speak in your normal tone, keeping your hands away from obscuring your face. Resist the temptation to shout – it distorts the way you speak making it harder to understsand and can come across as aggressive. Also if someone is wearing a hearing aid it will be callibrated to a normal speaking tone, so shouting will just distort the meaning.

If someone hasn’t heard or understood, rephrase the comment instead of just repeating the same sentence. Similarly, if you haven’t understood something they have said (sometimes speech can be affected by hearing loss), don’t pretend to have understood. Persevere until you really have understood.

I hope this helps you feel more confident around people with hearing or sight impairments, and never forget that each person will be different – find out (and remember) what works for them.


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8 thoughts on “Disability Etiquette, Part 8 – engaging with people with sight or hearing impairments

  1. Great advice as usual, Jane.

    Something I found with a blind lady I know was when greeting her, it helped to say “hi Margaret, it’s Suze” just so she didn’t have to guess my voice – rather as you would when speaking on the phone to someone.

    This lady went through the same chemotherapy regime as I did and we would share a good old chinwag while having our infusions … while her gorgeous, huge Golden Retriever guide dog, Bradley, either lay on my feet or sat with his head on my lap. (Dogs can tell I love them from 50 paces away…)

    As you can imagine he became the star of the Macmillan Unit at the hospital with patients, staff and everyone else. He would lie on his back with his legs in the air in the middle of the unit so nurses, doctors and patients could tickle his tummy. The funniest part was that I would get home from hospital and chemotherapy … covered in dog hair!

    The only time when Bradley would stray from his perfectly trained manners was when another friend of mine, a (leukemia) haematology patient who sadly is no longer with us, would be in having a blood transfusion and sit with me and Margaret for a chat. Her husband would arrive to take her home and Bradley would be all over him like a rash … the man was a butcher and although we couldn’t smell anything, to Bradley he obviously reeked of yummy meat odors!

    I’m pleased to say that Margaret IS still with us and she now has a young Retriever bitch as guide dog. Bradley is enjoying a well earned retirement at Margaret’s home.


  2. Yes, introducing yourself is important – it’s not fair to expect someone to recognise your voice amongst many others.


  3. Jane–I hope you are considering publishing this whole series as an stand-alone resource. I think it would be extremely helpful for, well, lots of people, but big corporations in particular, to share with their managers and staff.

    Every post has been practical and helpful. And I love the positive tone–informing people without any finger-wagging.


  4. A few other tips for dealing with deaf and HOH. Let them choose where to sit. You can’t lip read easily if someone is sitting with a light source behind them and most of us are pretty good at working out the best place to sit. If the person you are speaking to isn’t facing you then a gentle touch on the arm is better than shouting their name to get attention (some HOH people are very sensitive to sudden changes in volume and it will make them jump – plus it’s rude).

    Bear in mind that if you are at a social event that goes on late… We need light to lip read, so whilst you’re chatting in the garden after a nice evening with friends, as the light fades so does our ability to hear.

    If you are in an open plan office with a deaf colleague then don’t walk up to them from behind, try and approach from the side so you are in their field of vision before you speak, or you will make them jump – this goes back to letting us choose where to sit, so employers should consider a change around of the office layout or even a rear view mirror on the monitor.

    Don’t feel embarrassed about ‘forgetting’. I have deaf and HOH friends and we do forget ourselves, it’s fine, you can say ‘sorry, I forgot’ I certainly won’t jump down your throat for it.

    Lowering your voice and whispering in our ear to share some gossip? Yeah – that’s not going to work. Wait until you know you can’t be overheard we still want the goss!

    Any important training or promotional videos etc – really do need subtitles. If you rely on people being able to hear to promote your services then you’re excluding the estimated 15% of the uk population who have a hearing impairment. Only 15%? That’s 9 million people….

    It DOES matter. If someone hasn’t heard you twice then saying ‘oh it doesn’t matter’ means ‘you are not important enough for me to make the effort to help you work out what I just said’.

    And finally, no matter how tempting it is to cover your own discomfort with the ‘pardon’ joke when someone has admitted they are deaf/HOH – DON’T – it’s been done to us hundreds of times, you make yourself look an idiot and run the risk of a trip to A&E to get something removed.


  5. I’m blessed with deaf friends I’ve known since childhood. They clip me round the ear if I speak looking the other direction, have taught me to sign a few words and to listen to music with a loud enough vibe that they can feel. There’s so much you can do together when you let the deaf person guide the way.


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