Jane Cordell: Understanding deaf voices

Posted on April 12, 2012

Photo: Jane teaching fingerspelling to students at Leeds University

Laraine Callow’s post ‘Should deaf people speak for themselves’ about deaf presenting raises an important and sometimes difficult topic.

Laraine is right that deaf speakers do not get enough honest feedback from hearing people about our voices. People don’t want to offend a speaker by saying they cannot understand. But this can lead to misunderstandings on both sides and mean deaf and hearing people lose opportunities to develop and learn.

There are two issues. The first is technical:

  • How clear are you?
  • How long does it take for a hearing person to tune in to your voice and understand you?

The second issue is emotional:

  • How does public speaking make you feel?
  • How might these feelings come out?

The two issues obviously influence each other. If they are not carefully handled they can lead to a downward spiral, meaning fewer deaf people dare do public speaking and fewer hearing people get exposure to a wider range of voices.

Let’s be clear: standing up in front of people and speaking makes a lot of people nervous. Just because they can hear and more easily control their voice doesn’t mean the process is easy; nerves can affect someone’s voice. But a deaf public speaker has to have an even greater degree of awareness of the impact of their voice. In my experience that takes twice the concentration.

The upside, though, is because we have to concentrate harder, we cannot easily do a lazy job of a speech or talk. So it is possible deaf speakers put more effort into trying to get it right and communicating our message. But equally we demand more of the audience. It is a question, as ever, of balance.


I was interested to learn more about this, so at a recent talk at Leeds University I gave the 32 graduate students a simple questionnaire. I asked them to be honest. Here is a summary of the results:


For this predominantly second-language English-using Higher Education audience most listeners needed to put some effort in to understand the talk.

A quick check showed the same proportion of first-language English listeners (3 out of 5) chose the option ‘with some effort’. Although 5 is not a statistically valid number, it does suggest that the effort required to understand one deaf speaker may not be explained by fluency in the language used.

Most listeners found the talk more difficult at the start.

One student said they understood the talk ‘easily’ but that they found the start more difficult because they ‘felt a bit emotional’ then. It emerged later that this person had experienced recent hearing loss. This is an example of the technical/emotional mix and how one influences the other, but in this case it was the person’s ability to listen to emotionally affecting material (the story of my own employment discrimination).

What might this mean for deaf presenters?

This was just a quick straw poll. It would be good if others could do their own to help develop evidence. (Feel free to contact me on JCordell.Office@gmail.com if you would like a copy of the questionnaire.) But the results suggest a few tips:

  • Give the audience time to adjust to your voice at the start: avoid important messages (or your best jokes!) at the beginning.
  • Be clear about the fact you are deaf and why not hearing your own voice may make your voice sound different. Particularly if you have to use a microphone, check with a show of hands who can understand a few sentences you speak and who can’t and try to adjust.
  • Don’t worry about ‘exposing yourself’ by following this advice. In my experience an audience is likely to relax when you explain this explicitly and be more ‘on your side’ if you do stumble a little (and remember hearing people do this too!). Also the more relaxed and open you are, the more likely the audience will be.

I hope this promotes discussion. Good luck with your next talk!

Jane Cordell has worked as a diplomat, editor and teacher. She coaches deaf and disabled people to increase self-confidence. Jane recently became a Trustee for Disability Rights UK and Manchester Deaf Centre. She Tweets as @CordellJane

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