Tips on How to Communicate and Comply Effectively with a Deaf-Blind Person
by Elizabeth Spiers and Stephen Ehrlich
Not all Deaf-Blind people are alike. Some have different needs and communication methods and styles. It is perfectly all right to ask the person how to communicate with her/him if you are not sure. It may be good to observe another person communicating with the Deaf-Blind member to see what she/he does. It is important for you to let her/him know that someone close to you is observing so that she/he decides for herself/himself type of conversation-- informal or intimate-- to ensure their privacy.
When you approach a Deaf-Blind person for the first time, there are two different ways of meeting her/him. First, if you see that she/he are fully Deaf-Blind, you should always touch her/his hand gently to get your attention. Second, if you see that a person has low or partial vision, you should move in front of her/him, touch her/his arm gently and move back a little further to sign slowly in a fixed range at the level of her/his vision. Please NEVER tap a Deaf-Blind person's back or shoulder; otherwise, she/he can not find or see you due to her/his poor focus.
If you do not have any prior experience or don't know how to communicate or comply with or guide a Deaf-Blind person, please always feel free to ask for feedback or instruction from her/him. Please do not feel upset if you tend to make mistakes on a trial and error basis. No one is perfect, and we all are human beings to help and learn from each other. Please NEVER ask any other person in authority or a Support Service Provider (SSP) to speak for the particular Deaf-Blind person for this purpose. As long as individuality is heavily emphasized, direct, two-way, negotiable communication is required to promote a good work relationship between you and her/him.
Always identify yourself. A person with low vision who can see well enough to identify people may not need it all the time, but a fully Deaf-Blind person does. You can identify yourself with your full name and then sign name, and later with a sign name if the person knows you.
Please NEVER say to a fully Deaf-Blind person, "guess who I am" or "remember me" when she/he is or is not in a large crowd at an event. Please allow her/him time to figure out who you are once you identify yourself with your full name. If she/he does not remember or recognize you, please do not feel discouraged, and respect and accept her/his limited memory power. It would be helpful if you are willing to interact with her/him as much as you can so she/he gets to know you better.
Please make sure your sign name is not duplicated or identical with another person's in our Deaf community. Sometimes a fully Deaf-Blind person can misidentify you by the identical sign name when you meet her/him for the first time without feeling your stature, especially your hand texture and scent.
Let the Deaf-Blind person guide you vis a vis their communication preference. Some people with low vision need you to fingerspell slowly (as it is harder to read fingerspelling than signing).
You also may need to add "not" when you would ordinarily use a head shake or negative facial expression (e.g., I don't understand.....sign do not understand rather than understand and a head shake). You might want to add a flavor of visual information such as "ha ha" for laughter or a brief description of your appearance and dress including color.
When you greet a Deaf-Blind person who uses tactile signs, the person will most likely put her/his hand on top of yours in the position she/he prefer when by the time you tenderly move the top side of your hand under her/his palm, making it look like the two opposite hands join together. Her/His fingertips move around naturally to read your fingerspelling or signing.
It is highly recommended that you wear a dark colored top, preferably, brown, navy, green or black, when you communicate with a person with low vision. It would help eliminate his/her eye strain. Please also check if there is no light glare to interfere with her/his ability to read your signing.
If the person is eating, wait until she/he has stopped eating or is at a natural pause before interrupting her/him unless it is vital that you communicate with her/him. A Deaf-Blind person needs to stop eating, clean her/him hands and then touch your hand to begin communicating (mostly for people who use tactile signs).
Please do not worry about a Deaf-Blind person's food getting cold if she/he would prefer to engage in conversation during a meal time. Please also tolerate her/him if she/he listens with interest to you during conversation by placing her/him hand on your one-handed signing while she/he continues eating.
If the person is talking with someone else and you want to talk with her/her, you could touch the fully Deaf-Blind person's hand to indicate you are there, then wait for the person to acknowledge you...and/or let the other partner know you want to talk to the Deaf-Blind person.
It is natural to say that eye distractions or interruptions occur at any time in the audio/visual environmental when you are with or talk to a Deaf-Blind person. You should always fingerspell or sign to signal, "Hold" or "Suspend", to her/him when it happens that the third partner interferes with your way unintentionally to talk directly to you. This signal indicates that the Deaf-Blind person is instructed to wait for a little while so she/he will not get embarrassed from talking in the air or insulation. By the time the interruption takes place, you are held responsible to let her/him know immediately about the name of that partner speaking to you. If you do not recognize that partner, you should ask for her/his name for the Deaf-Blind person. Please make sure that the Deaf-Blind person does not feel excluded or isolated. After you are done with your conversation with the third partner, you should describe the valuable information literally to ensure the Deaf-Blind person won't miss anything. It would be most beneficial to the Deaf-Blind person who allows herself/himself to get involved in full conversation if you may be able to switch back and forth between talking to the third partner and relay-interpret with the Deaf-Blind person what the third partner is talking about. It is applicable to the principle of social etiquette in the deaf culture that a Deaf person who does not want to talk to any person or participates in the group conversation only invites herself/himself to observe/watch what others are talking about for her/his pleasure. Therefore, the Deaf-Blind person has, for the purpose of information access, a legitimate right to know what is going on around her/him in the surrounding.
If you have to leave, inform the Deaf-Blind person and ask if she/he wants to talk to someone else or if they need to go somewhere. If not, make sure she/he is near a chair or table or some place where she/he can orient herself/himself. NEVER leave Deaf-Blind person alone without informing her/him, or in a place where she/he can not orient herself/himself.
When you are about to leave, please make sure to ask what the Deaf-Blind person is planning to do or see if she/he is safe and secure even if an interpreter or a guide is not available at the time. Please then ask someone to be with her/him until the Support Service Provider (SSP) arrives.
When talking to a Deaf-Blind person with little or no vision, sometimes it helps to explain what is going on around you. Sometimes a person will ask you "what does this room look like or who is/are talking ...or how are the people dressed...or what are people doing now." It helps to describe visual information so the Deaf-Blind person knows what is going on.
When you help a fully Deaf-Blind person find a seat, please place her/his hand on the low side of a chair or sofa (down all the way from the top of related to the chair), allowing her/him find where to sit down. Please NEVER position her/him against it; otherwise, she/he will lose control of balance.
It is important to always remember that you need to move a Deaf-Blind person behind you when you two walk on a narrow path or squeeze into a small door space while leading her/him. Please always place a Deaf-Blind person's hand on a door knob to open the door, helping prevent her/him from getting hit or having a bump.
When you may assist or guide a Deaf-Blind person, please allow her/him to place her/his hand on your elbow or hand to walk side by side. Please never grab or pull her/his wrist or place your hand under her/his armpit as if she/he were treated as a child. It is vital for mobility/safety reasons.
Use your common sense and courtesy as long as you work and play with a Deaf-Blind person. Patience and time is well-invested to make your relationship with her/him enjoyable and productive. Keep in mind that she/he as an adult has a right to make a decision from choice options. According to the Golden rule, treat her/him the same as she/he does. Please do not make such a decision or make a fuss about her/him unless you are asked first. You will, for sure, find the challenge and learning experience interacting with her/him. Good luck!!