I am a talker, a gesturer and a reader of faces. Put another way, I speak, sign (a little) and speechread.
As a hard of hearing person, my language is a spoken one with heavy dependency on visual cues and expressions. I often punctuate my speech with signs picked up through a few years of exposure to American Sign Language (ASL). I tend to use them more if I’m speaking about hearing loss issues or when communicating with other people who have hearing loss. A few years ago, I took a week-long ASL 101 immersion course, and am proud to say that I graduated at the top of my class (of 8 people). After five exhausting, exhilarating days I passed my final exam by signing something like:
Hello. My name is Gael. I am a woman. I live in a house. Yes, I live in a house with a man who is my husband. I also live in a house with a man-baby who is my son. I work. I have only one sister, but I do not have only one brother. Yes, I have no brothers. I am happy to meet you. Are you happy to meet me? Thank you, I love you.
Since that sparkling debut, however, my signing has been limited to speech punctuation points and the occasional basic signs to indicate hello, goodbye, how are you and excuse me, I need to use the facilities.
But this past weekend, I stood at the front of a beautiful 150-year-old church in rural southwestern Ontario. I was the keynote speaker of a fundraiser organized by my cousin, and I was excited to be standing next to the pulpit from which, 70 years ago, my grandfather would have guest-preached. My message was going to be very different from his usual mild hellfire-and-brimstone sermon.
As I started to speak, a woman sitting in the third row (the first two pews were empty) motioned to catch my eye.
“Will you be signing?” she signed to me. “Are you deaf?”
I signed back, “No, I’m hard of hearing and I’m sorry, but I don’t sign. Do you have an interpreter with you?:
“No, she signed. “My sister is here, but she doesn’t sign.”
“Do you read lips?” I asked.
‘Yes, pretty good.”
“OK, why don’t you move to the front row, so you can see me better.”
If you know any sign, you will realize that this signed conversation was extremely basic – but it impressed the rest of the audience and, frankly, I impressed myself. After the presentation, the woman and I chatted, sort of. As she told me her story, in sign, she also articulated the words, without voice. I relied mostly on speechreading but her signs helped clarify certain speech movements I couldn’t understand without the benefit of some auditory input.
Thinking about the conversation later, I was struck once again by how we – people with hearing loss – get our information by auditory and visual, and sometimes tactile, means. The more strategies we embrace, the better and richer our social interactions can be.
Visual communication can be developed through training and awareness. While ASL is a full (and beautiful) language with its own grammar and syntax that does not follow spoken language, speechreading is a visual skill that helps make sense of speech. It’s an imperfect tool on its own, because fewer than half of all speech movements are visible through the lips, teeth or tongue, but when we throw in some sound, we’re generally good to go. My overall communication has improved in recent years since I became aware of, and started using, the 3 S’s of communcation – Speech, (some) Signs, and Speechreading.
The internet has many sites that promote the learning of sign language or development of speechreading skills. I was inspired by the Virginia Association of the Deaf’s reasons for learning sign, to offer my own thoughts on some benefits and challenges of visual communication.
- Signing lovers can communicate intimately, anytime and anywhere. (Unless, of course, they are communicating in a room full of other signers.)
- Speechreading and signing don’t work through walls or around corners. But neither, for people with hearing loss, does speech. So knock down the wall, or walk around the corner for some good, face-to-face interaction.
- Signers can communicate while chewing food, but speechreaders require an empty mouth and clean teeth.
- Friends swimming underwater can communicate by sign, but if they try to speechread, somebody’s going to swallow a lot of water.
- People with good speechreading skills and clean glasses may be able to speechread across a noisy, crowded room, but should allow for a large margin of error. On the other hand, signers can cut through the noise (both visual and auditory) to have decent, long-distance conversations.
The ability to sign or speechread improves with practice, so take a class or join a group. Blending the 3 S’s – speech, sign and speechreading – into a workable communication strategy is a fun and inclusive process.
I became a speechreading instructor some years ago, but I’m overdue for the next level of ASL immersion, where I hope to learn to sign-count into the double digits and maybe even tell a joke in sign language.