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

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from the Braille Forum, Volume XLIII, No. 1, July-August 2004: www.acb.org

Deaf-blind people are individuals. You can't 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, therefore, a list of suggestions you may want to consider and apply to specific situations.

  1. When you approach a deaf-blind person, let him or 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 own 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, yours and his or hers. Perhaps you can work out a simple but special signal 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 also irksome. Assume your deaf-blind companion does not remember you, and then react with pleasant surprise if he or she does.

  4. When talking with a deaf-blind friend, do not tease by poking, tickling, jostling, etc. unless he or she knows what's coming. Have you ever been startled by an unexpected slap on the back or a poke in the ribs? Hearing and vision warn us of what is coming from our immediate surroundings or further away.

  5. Be flexible about communication. Your deaf-blind companion may not fit your preconceived idea of how deaf-blind people communicate, so be open, not dogmatic. Don't make assumptions about the "right" modality, primary language or fluency.

If you don't know him or her, start with tactile, medium speed, modified American Sign Language. 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.

  1. Respect his or her "person." Communication takes longer and is often very difficult for us, but it is essential to our dignity. Do not move a person's hand for him or her, place a person into a chair, grip a person's thumb when signing (so that his or her hand does not slip off) or otherwise treat any person like an object.

  2. If a deaf-blind person is alone in a room, let him or 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. We all need to know when we are alone (and have our privacy) and when we are not. And we all need time to be alone and fully relax.

    1. If you are in a deaf-blind person's home, do not be tempted to use your vision to snoop or spy.
  3. 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.

  4. 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 or her ability to utilize limited hearing effectively.

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

  6. If you visit a deaf-blind person's home, be sure to leave things as they are. Poor vision makes it easy to spill or knock things over. Half-open doors or cupboards can be a particularly painful annoyance.

  7. Don't worry about "messiness." Doing things without sight may lead to a system for organization, which varies, from your definition of "the norm," but none of us should make judgments about one another's particular styles of putting things away.

  8. Remember to communicate about what you are doing. Don't just move another person, or hand him or her objects without an explanation. A person who is deaf and blind will know how to reach for an object, or cooperate by stepping back if he or she understands what is going on. If you must move a person suddenly for reasons of safety, explain the reasons for your actions afterward.

  9. Consider expense when planning outings or thinking of gifts.

  10. Offer help if it seems appropriate to do so. It hurts to always have to ask. For the same reason, try to be unobtrusive and subtle whenever you offer assistance.

  11. Ask a deaf-blind companion to join you in your tasks. Assume he or she is as willing to walk as anyone of the same age, as willing and able to carry things as anyone of the same size and build. Silly as it is, we sometimes think of deaf-blind people as fragile and we hesitate to ask them to walk far or help us carry things. Unless the deaf-blind person has a complicating disability, he or she will probably enjoy both the exercise and the opportunity to join you and to share life's chores with you.

On the other hand, some people with dual sensory losses have been forced into a sedentary lifestyle by well-meaning but uninformed caregivers. If this is the case, start slowly until your companion has had an opportunity to get in shape.

  1. Do let a person who is deaf and blind think independently. Give him or her options. Provide as much information as possible, then let the person make decisions for him-or herself.

Don't make assumptions about whether a person is hungry, whether he or she wants you to cut up the meat on the plate, etc. Allow a companion an adequate amount of time to make up his or her mind about an activity or your offer of assistance. Then, if your companion requests your help, offer it without judgment or comment.

  1. Personal items such as wallets, purses and keys should not be touched unless you are asked. A deaf-blind person can handle his or her own money, pay the check independently, open doors without your assistance, etc.

Along this same line of thought, be sure not to move a person's coat, cane, etc. without first telling him or her. Even if you hang it up, tell the item's owner where it is, so that when he or she is ready to leave, he or she knows where personal items are and does not have to find you or ask someone to look for them.

  1. Do not be offended or discouraged if the deaf-blind person asks to go home or seems to be unenthusiastic about suggested plans. The best of friends are not always welcome. There are times when all of us are exhausted, when we have other plans, when we have chores that must be done, etc.

  2. Plan things in advance so your deaf-blind friend knows what to expect and can plan accordingly. Being deaf and blind may require more organization and planning than being sighted and hearing.

  3. Consider everything you say to be a promise and follow through. We often make simple statements, which are really promises such as "I'll stop by tomorrow on my way home." "I'll be right back." "I want you to come over for dinner some time." Sometimes we don't really mean "tomorrow" but "soon."

Sometimes we already know we can't do what we say we will, but we wish we could. For someone who cannot drive, has limited access to phone and bus, who has a small circle of friends, a lack of follow-through can be especially disappointing.

  1. Respect the deaf-blind person's privacy and dignity. Do not ask personal questions unless you are close friends. Do not pass on information you may know about him or her without his or her knowledge and permission.

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