Courtesy Guidelines: What You Should Do When You Meet a Person Who Is Deaf and Blind

Deaf blind people are individuals. You cannot, therefore, lump them together as a group, any more than you can attribute a class of characteristics to any particular individual. The keys to interacting effectively and sensitively with people who are deaf and blind, as with all people, are courtesy, flexibility and common sense. What follows is a list of suggestions which you may want to consider and apply to specific situations.

  1. When you approach a deaf-blind person, let him/her know, with a gentle touch on the hand that you are near. Touching the hand is less startling than a touch on the back or arm. If you touch a person’s hands gently, and slide your hands underneath his or her hand, the person will know that you want to communicate.

  2. Identify yourself every time you meet. Even if a deaf-blind person is partially sighted or usually recognizes the touch of your hands, it is always nice to be reassured. Identifying yourself will also save possible confusion and embarrassment. Perhaps you can work out a simple, but special, cue for quickly identifying yourself such as a name sign.

  3. Don’t ever play the “who am I” game. It is extremely aggravating. “Do you remember me? We met at … (don’t you) remember?” is always irksome. Assume your deaf-blind companion does not remember you.

  4. Be flexible about communication. Your deaf-blind companion may not fit your preconceived idea of how deaf-blind people communicate, so be open. Don’t make assumptions about the “right” modality, primary language, or fluency. If you don’t know him/her, start with tactile, medium-speed modified American Sign Language (ASL). This is the accepted default medium. As your companion responds, you can naturally modify your communication media and speed to make the conversation more comfortable for you both.

  5. Respect his/her “person.” Communication takes longer and is often very difficult for those who are deaf and blind, but it is essential to their dignity. Do not move a person’s hand for him/her, place a person into a chair, grip a person’s thumb when signing (so that his/her hand does not slip off) or otherwise treat the person like an object.

  6. If a deaf-blind person is alone in a room, let him/her know if you will be going in and out; whether you have come in to stay for a while; or when you are leaving. They need to know when they are alone and have their privacy, and when that is not the case.

  7. Think of partial vision as useful but totally unreliable. Whenever possible, describe what you are talking about clearly and, rather than pointing at an object, let a deaf-blind companion touch it.

  8. Don’t make assumptions about what your deaf-blind companion may or may not be able to hear. Ambient noise, other environmental factors, or even a person’s ability to concentrate on a particular day can affect his/her ability to utilize limited hearing effectively.

  9. Guide a deaf-blind person’s hand to objects by leading with yours. Let his/her hand rest lightly on the back of your hand as you move it slowly toward what you want him/her to touch. When you make contact, slowly slip your hand out from underneath.

  10. Communicate about what you are doing. Don’t just move the person, or his/her things, or hand him/her objects without an explanation.

  11. Do let a person who is deaf and blind think independently. When possible give him/her options. Provide as much information as possible, then let the person make decisions for himself/herself. Don’t make assumptions about whether a deaf-blind person needs his/her meat cut up etc.

  12. Personal items such as wallets, purses and keys should not be touched unless you are asked.

Similarly, be sure not to move a person’s coat, cane, etc. without first telling him/her. Tell the item’s owner where his/her personal items are so he/she is able to independently find them when he/she needs them.

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