In essence, there are two main ways that a deaf person will communicate.  These are using:

  • a sign language (usually Australian Sign Language or Auslan)
  • oral communication (lipreading and speech or possibly listening, lipreading and speech)

Some deaf people will use a combination of these.  The best way to find out how your deaf student communicates is to talk to him or her.

Sign Language

The primary sign language in Australia is Auslan and this is the language of the Deaf community.  Auslan is a visual, gestural and spatial language that is not a visual representation of English.  Therefore, even though a person can be born and educated in Australia, their first language will not be English; it will be Auslan.

An Auslan sign represents a concept.  This is the same as an English word representing a concept.  Therefore – to be clear – an Auslan sign does not represent an English word.

There are other sign systems in Australia that are used to manually represent the English language on the hands.  For the most part, these have been used in compulsory education.  These are Signed English, Manually Coded English and Fingerspelling.  All are contrived systems of signs that represent English visually.

Oral Communication

So-called “oral” communication refers to people who use lipreading (more accurately referred to as speech reading) and speech to communicate.  Some also use the information that they can hear by using either hearing aids or cochlear implants [see more] to support lipreading.  This is then called oral/aural communication.

What you need to be aware of when someone is using oral communication includes:

  • it is not possible to lip read 100% of a conversation due to similarities in how many English sounds look on the lips (for example, the sounds for “b” and “p” appear the same on the lips and it is what happens inside the mouth that creates the sound distinction – this cannot be seen by a lipreader),
  • the popular notion that lipreaders can capture everything and “overhear” conversations from far away is inaccurate,
  • in fact, much of lip reading is guesswork utilising a number of strategies (such as visual cues and context) to deduce what is being said; this is why subject changes in a conversation are so difficult to follow,
  • where possible, use visual cues to support your what you say,
  • where possible, naturally set the context as a part of what you are saying (e.g.  “now I am going to tell you about your upcoming exam …”),
  • lipreading requires a great deal of concentration and is very tiring,
  • lipreading ability is reduced if the deaf person is tired, stressed or ill or if the environment is unsuitable (e.g.  glary sunlight, dim lighting) or if the speaker is unfamiliar and/or has an accent,
  • the speech of someone who has been deaf for most of his or her life often sounds flat and/or indistinct; over time, you will grow accustomed to listening to it but it is perfectly acceptable to ask for a person to repeat what you do not understand,
  • communicating in a quiet environment, one-to-one will assist effective communication on both sides; particularly for someone wearing a hearing aid, noisy environments are distracting and make the task of lipreading much more difficult,
  • make sure that do not exaggerate your lip movements unnaturally; you may be trying to help, but it actually makes lipreading more difficult
  • make sure that you do not inadvertently cover your mouth with your hand or another object such as a coffee cup or pen as this will make lipreading extremely difficult.