Can You Lipread?

It’s the first and the most favorite question hearing people would ask deaf people – even after some deaf people ask them to write down or type what they say. However, it’s one of the MAJOR pet peeves of many deaf/hoh people when it comes to communicating with hearing people.

This question gives the impression that a hearing person wants to put all communication responsibilities on a deaf person’s shoulders and wants them to make their own lives easier than the other way around. Deaf people are constantly frustrated with communication access barriers just because society expects everyone to use only ears and a mouth to communicate verbally which is not an easy task for many people who have little or no hearing and even for those who have a mild hearing loss.

What’s the proper question to ask a deaf person? The best question would be: “How to make our communication easy for YOU?”

Hearing people should not expect every deaf person to lipread everything they say and turn away from them if being asked to write down or type. Even if deaf people say they can lipread, hearing people should not assume that they can speak in any way they want.

Also, many hearing people do not realize that if deaf people can speak well, it does not necessarily mean that they can understand hearing people without any problems. It’s also annoying and frustrating to hear remarks from hearing people like this: “You cannot be deaf – you speak so well!” It’s their ears that are broken, not vocal cords.

Lipreading is not the exact science and gives only 30% of visual information. The rest is the guesswork and depends on various factors such as the amount of residual hearing, the lighting condition, the absence of background noises, how well a person enunciates words, if there are no objects in their mouths, etc.

Lipreading is more like playing Hangman or Wheel of Fortune – if you know the subject, you can fill in the blanks. Depending on how many clues you have, you can figure out what a person say based on context. Therefore, many misunderstandings may happen. There’s a classical example of the sentence – “What’s that big loud noise?” – that could be misunderstood by lipreading as “What’s That Pig Outdoors?”

Lipreading requires more cognitive process to figure out how to fill in some blanks and therefore can be very exhausting. If you add poor lighting, noisy environments, mumblers – it makes it even more frustrating if not impossible to lipread. And it’s harder to lipread during group conversations than in one-to-one conversations. That’s the reason why many deaf/hoh people prefer to use captioning, cued speech, and/or sign language.

Here’s the excerpt of Rachel Kolb’s article, Seeing at the Speed of Sound (that I would highly recommend you to read in details):

“Want an example?

—- the —- before ——— when ————- the house

not — cre ——————— even —- m——

Do you recognize the opening of “The Night Before Christmas”? Perhaps so, because in American culture the poem is familiar enough for one to fill in the blanks through memory. Filling in the blanks is the essence of lipreading, but the ability to decipher often depends on factors outside of my control.”

If you want to communicate with a deaf person, please meet them at least half the way by speaking slower or writing down what you say. Even if you know some basics of sign language, please don’t hesitate to use it. For more details on how to better communicate with a deaf person in informal one-to-one and group situations, get a free Communication Tips PDF.

Also, please don’t walk away from a deaf person just because you don’t want to go the extra mile to make communication easier for them. You never know how many interesting stories you may hear from them that help you broaden your horizons.

Shown here is a video made by Deaf people in UK explaining about lipreading and its pros and cons (captioned in English and signed in BSL).

(Video – F V SH)