Charlie Swinbourne: 10 tips for including deaf people at Christmas!

Posted on December 19, 2013

Christmas is a special time of year, but for deaf people, it can also be a tricky time, because we can easily find ourselves spending time around people who are not incredibly deaf aware.

I still remember one Christmas when my brother’s deaf friend asked if he could drive over to our house for a few hours on Christmas Day – simply because he felt so left out.

I’ve also heard stories of deaf people spending time at Christmas with their brothers and sisters, parents, and wider family – only to find that now they no longer saw them every day, their deaf-friendly communication skills had slipped.

The end result can be feeling left out, even as everyone around you seems to be having a wonderful time.

But never fear, Limping Chicken is here to help! Here is our list of festive tips to help hearing relatives include deaf members of their family…

(as ever, apologies in advance for my lo-fi drawings.)

1. Buy a round table


This isn’t the sexiest tip to start on (unless you have a thing for tables of all shapes and sizes) but it’s first in this list because it takes time to fix – after all, you can’t pop to the corner shop for a new dining room table.

I’ve got nothing against rectangular tables, but for deaf people, they make it hard to see everyone around the table, which has a knock-on effect on communication.

Round tables, meanwhile, give us a better chance of clocking it when someone is about to speak, and look at them in time to lipread.

We think this round table is perfect. Just kidding.

2. Turn the subtitles on


Christmas telly is great, isn’t it?

Well, it is if you can understand it. And for that, most deaf people use subtitles.

So first, hearing friends, tackle the mental side. Make sure you’re prepared – psychologically – to turn your subtitles on. Even if you find them annoying. No excuses – it’s only for a day or two.

Second, before your deaf relative comes, work out how to turn on the subtitles on your digibox. It can be fiddly, but you’ll get there in an hour or so, with a bit of luck.

It’ll save us the hassle, and it’s a double win, because it also shows you thought of us before we even arrived.

Which means you’ll get an even better present next year.

3. Give the kids a pep talk


Children get very lively at Christmas, with a mountain of presents to open, and far too much chocolate to eat.

So it’s worth mentioning some deaf awareness tips to them a few days before Christmas.

Something like: “Uncle Charlie needs to be able to see your lips to understand you, so can you try to look at him when you’re talking to him?”

Even if a child remembers just once, it makes a real difference.

You might want to mention that Father Christmas is watching (always), just to add a sense of importance to the whole thing…

4. Speak clearly and face us


Now the party’s started, remember this maxim:

If we can’t see you, we can’t ‘hear’ you.

Since we’ve been away, you might have got out of the habit of speaking clearly (we don’t mean using HUGE lip patterns incidently) and making sure you’re facing us, as you natter away.

And at Christmas there’s so many times you might be looking away. When you’re slaving over the stove, or opening presents, for example.

So remember, when you’re talking to us, look up, make eye contact, and maintain it (even if you start to feel self-conscious).

Most important of all: be prepared to repeat yourself when we still don’t understand.

Without a flicker of annoyance crossing your face.

We’re highly attuned to that kind of thing.

5. Shave


Everyone loves Father Christmas, right?

Well, yes. But deaf children who visit Father Christmas are often underwhelmed, because his bushy beard obscures everything he says.

Don’t make the mistake Santa made.

Have a shave.

Or, failing that, a trim.

Around the mouth area.

It’ll grow back.


6. Brush up on your signing skills


Your deaf relative may be a sign language user.

If so, you might want to get back into the swing of things in advance of their visit. Why not watch a few episodes of See Hear? Or watch a few dramas on the BSL Zone?

At the very least, brush up on the fingerspelling alphabet – so you can spell any words you get stuck on – or browse the signs relating to Christmas by clicking here (it starts with beer, so it’s spot on in my view).

7. Include us


Maybe you’re halfway through an anecdote.

Maybe you’re making a comment on the TV programme that you’re watching.

Or maybe your neighbour has popped in to wish you Merry Christmas.

Whatever it is, when your deaf relative looks in your direction, or arrives in the room while you’re talking, do this one simple thing:

Give them a brief summary of what you’re talking about.

“Mum’s telling me about Auntie Ginny’s delicate operation. Ouch.”

“Dave is saying they had a power cut halfway through cooking the turkey!”

“The Queen’s message was the same old same old, wasn’t it?”

Stuff like that.

We may not want to join in, but you’re giving us the option – and we appreciate that more than you could know.

8. Give us a role


Personally, I’m incredibly lazy when it comes to helping with Christmas dinner.

But what I appreciate, despite that, is being given a role at Christmas time.

Whether it’s making the bread sauce, pouring wine, or just making the odd cuppa – while other people sweat buckets in the kitchen making pigs in blankets, obviously – it makes us feel like we’re part of it.

And that’s a very nice feeling.

9. Play a game


After hours of constant communication, which can be wearing when you’re lipreading, why not change tack and play a game?

It means that we can switch focus, and concentrate on giving you a good thrashing at Risk or Monopoly, rather than working out the detail of why you got that reprimand at work last month.

If there’s a lot of relatives staying, it can also really break the ice.

As long as they’re ok with getting beat by a Deafie, obviously.


10. Go easy on the dimmer switch


We all like a bit of ambience, don’t get me wrong.

But there’s a limit.

For, as the lights go down, us deaf folk find it just that bit harder to lipread.

It’s about as tiring as driving down a dark country road for hours on end.

This is why some deaf people go to bed at 8pm on Christmas Day. (Well, that, and, ahem, overconsumption of food.)

So dim those lights, but just a bit.

11. Go slow on the drinks


Whoops, as you can see, there’s more than 10… bear with me!

Christmas and alcohol are indelibly linked. And us deaf folk don’t want to be party poopers.

But please remember that as the bubbly flows, it’s very easy to find your deaf awareness skills flowing away, too.

Plus, you get really hard to lipread when you’re slurring your words.

12. Make phone calls deaf-friendly


It’s great when far-away relatives phone on Christmas Day, but why not ask them to make a video call using Skype or FaceTime?

This way, your deaf relative won’t have to rely on you to give an impression of how they sounded – they’ll be able to see them, give them a wave, and join in.

Though if it’s an annoying relative, please do ask them to use the phone.

Not that we’re taking advantage of our deafness or anything, you understand.


Deaf awareness is not just for Christmas, it’s for life

This is the most important tip of all.

Whether it’s Easter, Thanksgiving (hello to our fans in the USA!) a wedding, a family birthday party, or even just a weekend away, using just a few of these tips will transform your time together.

So keep using them. Merry Christmas!

What are your Christmas deaf awareness tips? Tell us below and we’ll add them to this article!

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Charlie Swinbourne is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being a journalist and award-winning scriptwriter. He writes for the Guardian and BBC Online, and as a scriptwriter, penned the films My SongComing Out and Four Deaf Yorkshiremen.

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