Written by Amy Truman
Have you ever tried lip-reading? Personally, the only successful lip-reading I can understand is an angry coach on TV. It’s a common misconception that all deaf people have this superpower to help them interact with the hearing world around them. So why is lip-reading such a rare skill?
Studies estimate that only 30% of spoken English can be understood using lip-reading, which leaves 70% of the conversation to be guessed. The majority of what happens to formulate sounds and words are not visible on the lips, such as placement of the tongue or what happens in your throat. Try it with a friend and see if you can see the difference between “face” and “vase” or “salad” and “talent”. This has been compared to feeling like one’s entire day is an exhausting, continuous game of Wheel of Fortune, catching what letters you can and trying to fill in the blanks, all while someone is still talking to you.
|Photo Credit Sciencemag.org
It should be noted that not every situation is conducive to lip-reading. Lip-reading requires the person talking to be directly facing the person lip-reading, along with good lighting and speaking at an understandable speed. When factors such as unfamiliar vocabulary, multiple speakers (who most likely speak over each other), or the speaker’s face is not clearly visible (such as at a public speech or in a classroom where the teacher needs to write on the board), lip-reading’s challenges increase to potentially impossible levels. Other commonplace factors that increase this difficulty can be as simple as the conversationalist chewing gum or having facial hair! Add to this consideration for the current worldwide pandemic of COVID-19 where everyone (from healthcare workers to the associate at the grocery store) is wearing a mask that makes lip-reading impossible!
The best way to ensure full access and equity for your Deaf client is to ask what their preferred mode of communication is. Some Deaf people do communicate well through lip-reading (again: this is a superpower not everyone has) and prefer to utilize lip-reading skills. If this is the case, and health reasons require a mask, your organization may want to invest in transparent face masks. However, it is presumptuous to assume that every Deaf client will have equitable access by means of communicating through lip-reading, and your Deaf client will still need to communicate back with you. Best practice is to ask what accommodations best suit your Deaf client and seek appropriate qualified services (e.g. an ASL interpreter or CART services). It’s not about your comfort; it’s about their access and equity.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, “The ADA requires that title II entities (State and local governments) and title III entities (businesses and nonprofit organizations that serve the public) communicate effectively with people who have communication disabilities. The goal is to ensure that communication with people with these disabilities is equally effective as communication with people without disabilities.” For more information about what is required for effective communication, click here.
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