Communication Tips for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Patrons

Oct 25, 2019

Jo Otterholt

By Jo Otterholt, Resource Specialist
Wyoming Services for the Deaf Library

Our communities are becoming more aware of the diversity of the people that make-up their neighborhood. Libraries are a natural gathering place for neighbors, friends, and family members to greet each other and share resources. But how do libraries make sure that the person who does not hear well feels welcomed to share the same resources, when it is difficult for them to communicate? Libraries can make this person feel welcomed with a simple greeting wave and smile. But what else can you do to enhance this relationship?

  • Speak to the individual and not their interpreter or companion.
  • A deaf person may have preference for communication: interpreter, speech-read, pen/paper, mobile device, sign language, speaking for themselves, and maybe even gestures.
  • What worked for the last deaf patron, may not work for the next one.
  • Remember the deaf person is working hard to understand you, be patient and flexible to follow their lead of communication mode.
  • Don’t throw things at the deaf person to get their attention, a light tap or two on the shoulder will work. Or a gentle wave works too. If you need to get a group of deaf people’s attention, slowly turn off and on a light switch; fast toggling of the switch means there is an emergency situation.
  • Make sure you are fully engaged in the conversation: by facing each other, having adequate lighting, and be sure your mouth-lips-and-eyes area is not covered.
  • Don’t cover your mouth with finger or hand, chew gum or food, smoke, or even chew on a toothpick when conversing with a deaf person who is trying to speech-read.
  • A good speech-reader is only able to see 30% or fewer words or syllables of English words on the mouth. The other 70% of utterances, are unseen sounds made in the throat area. A good speech-reader is usually very knowledgeable of spoken language, and a good guesser from the context of the topic.
  • Be aware of what the rest of your body language is doing while a deaf person is communicating with you — jiggling your leg, hands in pockets, eyes focused somewhere else. Don’t fake it — be a natural listener. Your eyes and body are more honest of your sincerity than your ‘talk.’
  • If the deaf person asks for you to repeat something, do so. However, after repeating the same phrase 2-3 times, rephrase what you are saying. (“That dog is fast”, rephrased to, “That’s a fast dog.”)
  • Don’t shout! It looks aggressive and sometimes is scary. Speak in a clearly enunciated, normal-paced manner of your usual speaking voice. Only increase the volume of your voice, if you are asked to.
  • Be aware of noises and lighting around you. You may need to move to a quieter place, or away from a dark area and flashing lights.
  • Deaf people like to laugh, even if you have to repeat, share your jokes or teasing with them.
  • Don’t use inappropriate slang gestures or words, unless you explain their meaning first.
  • If you should suddenly need to move or leave, tell the deaf person what is happening or where you are going. Remember they didn’t/can’t hear that you were paged on the intercom, or that the fire alarm just went off.
  • Make sure areas in your environment are clearly marked with signs, so the deaf person doesn’t have to ask directions and can maintain their independence. The sign should have a simple icon on it in addition to the printed word.
  • Use two pencils and a notepad or paper for communicating in writing. Sharing paper AND a pencil can be cumbersome, whereas it is easy to pass the paper back and forth, while keeping the pencil in your hand.
  • Mobile devices are increasingly being used as a communication tool. If a deaf person prefers to speak, s/he may use a mobile app that provides text from speech on the screen via Live Transcript or Otter apps. Or they may use the mobile device to connect to an interpreter, who is signing what you are saying and providing audio for what the deaf person signs. Follow their lead. After all, the deaf person communicates everyday with hearing people, whereas this may be your only deaf person to communicate with today or week.
  • Have a sign language dictionary handy for the deaf person to use should they ask for one. (See a list of recommended dictionaries below.)
  • If you have a TV playing, make sure that closed captioning is on. Consider playing a sign language DVD.
  • Consider designating a computer with Google Hangouts with closed caption turned on, or adding a captioned phone in your library for your deaf clients use.
  • If you have a public meeting planned in the library that you know your deaf patron would like to attend, contract for an sign language interpreter, or provide a mobile device/or laptop for the deaf person to read the transcription on. Ask the deaf person their preference. You will need to download a reliable app such as Live Transcribe or Otter. If you plan to record from this transcription app, let all attendees know at beginning of meeting. You may opt to provide a print-out of the transcription to all attendees.

Following are some free apps that your patron may be using, or you may want to check out for yourself:

  • Live Transcribe – free from Google Play (voice to print)
  • Otter – free for both Apple and Google Play (voice to print)
  • InnoCaption – both Apple and Google Play (voice to print)
  • Skype – Video + audio calls on mobile device from both Apple and Google Play
  • P3 Mobile for Androids – make phone calls with help from signing and voice interpreters
  • Convo Mobile – free video relay services for Apple and Android
  • Speech2RTT – free from Google Play (voice to print)
  • Connect by BeWarned – speech to text from Google Play only


  • Gordon, Jean. The Gallaudet Children’s Dictionary of American Sign Language,
  • Valli, Clayton. The Gallaudet Dictionary of American Sign Language
  • Sternberg, Martin L.A. American Sign Language: A Comprehensive Dictionary.

Jo Otterholt and her twin were born with bi-lateral profound hearing loss, which was not discovered until they were four-years-old. They were educated in the days before Special Education was available in schools. Now they both wear cochlear implants. Jo works for the Wyoming Department of Education at the Wyoming Services for the Deaf Library in Casper.

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