Can you lipread?

The very first question that I get asked every time once someone finds out about my deafness is “can you lipread?” (and yes, they’re verbally asking me this). It’s a misconception that every deaf person knows how to lipread. It’s a skill that is learned. As mentioned in my background blog, I grew up in a mainstreamed setting so I learned how to lipread at a young age.

Lipreading is a difficult skill to learn. It varies on the level of hearing loss and preferred communication method - some deaf people may be experts but some may be lousy. Hearing people often think this is the best method of communication but it is not. I grew up in a mainstreamed setting so I use simultaneous communication - speech and American Sign Language (ASL) as my main method of communication with my family and friends. Signing is the easiest method of communication but I also use speech to help them understand me more since they don’t know EVERY word in sign language. I understand everything when they use ASL with me.

I lipread a little when I’m interacting with strangers in public like at the stores, appointments, etc. If I am aware of what the conversation will be about, I have the ability to lipread most of what is being said. For example, if I go into a coffee shop - I know they will be asking me what size cup, what kind of milk, do I want this added in the drink, etc. It throws me off if they started a conversation that is not topic-related. Often, I would panic and wonder “what are they saying?”. It will take me a few minutes to try and figure out what is being said.

Many people have asked me if it makes a difference if I’m in a one-on-one dialogue vs a group setting discussion. Either way, I am only able to catch a few words from the entire conversation. The benefit of having 1:1 conversation is that I am able to focus on one person and I can ask them to repeat if necessary. Forget it with a group setting! I never catch anything from multiple people talking and they don’t always directly look at me (which helps me to lipread). It is extremely difficult and most of the time I leave those groups wondering what the discussion was about.

One issue that I have faced while trying to lipread a stranger in a public setting is that they get annoyed with me when I ask them to repeat or gesture. They either give up or cut the conversation short. So many people do not realize that lipreading is a substantial task for deaf people. It really requires us to put in a LOT of effort. In the end, I always feel guilty for any miscommunication that happens which isn’t always my fault. I try to ask people to write since that is better than lipreading.

You wouldn’t believe the misunderstandings that can happen from attempting to lipread! When I’m in a dialogue with a stranger, I am likely to catch a few words so I play the whole “fill in the blank” game. There have been some assumptions where I was entirely wrong and made the situations very awkward!

How long does it take me to lipread a new person that may come in my life? I am employed at a public school and I am the only deaf person there. How do I communicate with my hearing co-workers? I do have to lipread most of them. It is always challenging in the beginning of every year when I work with new co-workers. It does help when I see them daily and practice lipreading them. For example, if my co-worker verbally reads a book that I am familiar with, I am able to practice lipreading. It takes me about a month and a half to be able to lipread the majority of what they are saying but I do still occasionally miss some words.

Many people also don’t realize there are things that can prevent me from lipreading! One time at work, we lost power so we were in complete darkness. A co-worker started talking to me but I couldn’t see their lips in the dark! There have been some men that I wasn’t able to lipread because of their mustaches or beards. I can’t read lips when they’re covered with facial hair. It can be very distracting to lipread when someone has objects in their teeth/mouth or any kind of deformity around their mouth.

Accents also prevent me to lipread since people pronounce their words differently. I’ve traveled to Ireland twice where I’ve met many friends. They all spoke English but pronounced their words differently so I wasn’t able to lipread. I have came across New Englanders with strong Boston accents, which again I can’t lipread. I wasn’t raised in Boston so I never learned their pronunciations.

In the end it’s best that you do not assume that all deaf people can lipread. Don’t be afraid to ask them what their preference method of communication is. Most of the time it will be writing on paper or gesturing. Of course it’s most helpful if you know sign language!

All opinions in this blog are my own.