Rebecca-Anne Withey: What a lifetime of lipreading has taught me

Posted on February 20, 2017



I just laughed. It seemed to work though as he chuckled back at me then wandered off.

It was an old guy who had said something randomly to me as I pushed my daughter’s buggy. She had stared at him straight-faced as he walked by so he murmured something witty/sarcastic/humorous/who knows…

The truth is I didn’t have a clue what he said.

So I laughed. And it worked. Phew.

More often than not I will say the usual “I’m deaf can you say that again?” But it takes effort and patience to lipread and on this particular occasion I bluffed my response for the sake of some energy.

I cringe when I recollect the times that “winging it” when it comes to lip reading didn’t work.

Getting chatted up in nightclubs was always a nightmare, guessing the questions in the dark…

To my hearing friends,  it was hilarious (thanks guys) but they – like my deaf buddies – urged me to be straight up and out with my deafness. That way I’d filter out the people that had no patience for my lipreading and save my time anyway.

Truth be told, I’m not a bad lipreader. Once my eyes are hooked onto a lip pattern and I’ve worked out an accent, and the general rhythm or speed of the speech I can usually manage okay. But reading lips isn’t a science, there’s an awful lot of guess work, intuition and filling-the-gaps.

But seeing as I got myself some new specs to help my short sightedness I’ve been having a ball lip reading people from afar. I’m not talking about miles away, that’s just daft.

But if you see me with my glasses on and deep in concentration, I’m probably “eye-wigging” a conversation that’s happening around me. If hearing people can ear-wig, I’ll do the deaf equivalent!

I find it so interesting how some people are naturally easier to lipread than others. I tend to gravitate towards those who speak a little more animatedly as they’re easier to read but at the other end of the scale I stay away from those who pointedly exaggerate and change their lip patterns for my ‘benefit.’

If you’re hearing and you’re reading this you’re probably thinking so speak clearly but not too clearly, huh?! So I’ll clarify. My fave pointers for being lipreader friendly are as follows:

  1. Positioning matters. We don’t lipread sideways, it’s face on. So always stand in the direction of the lipreader. And avoid standing in front of a window, mirror or direct sunlight, you’ll just get scowls, squinty eyes and lipreaders struggling to follow you.
  2. As mentioned earlier, don’t be too random. Blurting out “drinks?!” can be read as “ring? Rick? Rig?” So putting it into a sentence “do you fancy coming for a few drinks” with the universal *drink* gesture is massively helpful!
  3. Keep a nice and steady pace. I have a friend with a broad Black Country accent who I can lipread fine 80% of the time. But the other 20% of the time he becomes overexcited or eager to tell a joke and it all gets lost in a –ohmygoodnessyouaresogoingtolaughatthis – blur. We lipreaders might be good but ninjas we ain’t. So relax, speak casually and give us some warning if a jokes coming…
  4. Please do not  over emphasise words. Not only does it make you look silly but it blurs the consonants and natural rhythm of the words that we are accustomed to seeing everyday. The only times I’m comfortable at seeing exaggerated words is when I’m being told a number or a price… “Is that 9.99 or nineTEEN 99?”
  5. Lastly – making things visual  really helps. I don’t expect everyone I meet to be proficient at sign but if you’re in regular company of a lipreader it would be doing them a favour to use universal signs that pretty much everyone can guess. Numbers can be shown, areas pointed to, and things can be written down. Before having a meeting or gathering, if the lipreader has some prep/notes beforehand this can make a world of difference by anticipating what’s to come.

I love how lipreading means I can tell my Dad what the footballer is really saying when he’s yelling at the referee but there’s no sound on the telly… And it’s fun (though admittedly very nosey) to lipread other mums at playgroups chatting when I’m sat on my tod.

But there’s an awful lot of time when I do – like the case of the elderly gentleman – just guess what’s being said. So next time you nod or smile in clueless wonder at what someone’s said but you haven’t the time nor energy to clarify… You’re very much not alone. 

Lipreaders, I salute you.

Read more of Rebecca’s articles for us here.

Rebecca Anne Withey is a freelance writer with a background in Performing Arts & Holistic health. 

She is also profoundly deaf, a sign language user and pretty great lipreader. 

Her holistic practices and qualifications include Mindfulness, Professional Relaxation Therapy, Crystal Therapy and Reiki. 

She writes on varied topics close to her heart in the hope that they may serve to inspire others.

The Limping Chicken is the UK’s deaf blogs and news website, and is the world’s most popular deaf blog. It is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne.

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