9 Terms You Need to Know about Effective Communication for Your Deaf Customers

Smiling non-white man who is deaf. He's pointing his finger up.
Source: Thiago Barletta on Unsplash

Listening beyond the hearing world

We live in a world designed by and for hearing people. It can be hard to fully grasp how many barriers exist for people who are deaf and hard of hearing (HOH). Even everyday tasks — like picking up a prescription or going to the bank — can be challenging when you can’t hear. 

The first step to providing effective communication for your deaf and HOH customers is to understand the different tools and services they use. To help, we’ve put together a glossary of some of the most common terms and acronyms. 

Table of Contents

  1. American Sign Language (ASL)
  2. ASL Interpreters
  3. Certified Deaf Interpreters (CDIs)
  4. Closed Captioning (CC)
  5. Fingerspelling
  6. Lipreading
  7. Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS)
  8. Video Relay Service (VRS)
  9. Video Remote Interpreting (VRI)

1. American Sign Language (ASL)

ASL is the sign language most widely spoken in the U.S. — and one of more than 300 sign languages used around the world. The number of ASL users is estimated to range from 250,000 to one million people. Despite how widespread it is, there’s a lot of misconceptions that you might find surprising. For example, did you know that ASL isn’t simply a signed version of English? In fact, it’s a unique language with its own syntax, grammar, and history.

2. ASL Interpreters

ASL interpreters are hearing individuals trained to interpret between ASL and English. In addition to interpreting, they help navigate the nuances between Deaf and hearing cultures. They also follow professional and ethical standards set by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID). ASL interpreters are nationally certified through RID and the National Association for the Deaf (NAD).

Related: Ignored No More: Voices Shine through Black American Sign Language

3. Certified Deaf Interpreters (CDIs)

A CDI is an interpreter who is deaf or HOH. They understand not just interpreting, but deafness, the Deaf community, and Deaf culture. Fluent in ASL, they’re trained to use communication tools like gestures, mime, drawings, and props. A CDI often works with a certified ASL interpreter to help people who are deaf and hearing communicate. 

4. Closed Captioning (CC)

Closed captioning is the text that runs below a TV program or movie, displaying both dialogue and non-dialogue audio in real time. While CC has many applications (i.e., catching everything said in Game of Thrones), it actually provides a critical service. CC helps make broadcasted events accessible to those who are deaf or HOH.

5. Fingerspelling

This uses a manually signed alphabet to spell out words, with each letter getting its own sign. For example, instead of using the ASL sign for unicorn, you would spell out the individual letters U-N-I-C-O-R-N. Fingerspelling can be incorporated into other ASL signs, and it’s also used to spell out words that don’t have a sign equivalent. 

6. Lipreading 

Lipreading, or speechreading, relies on observing a person’s lips, tongue, and face movements to interpret speech. It uses context clues, knowledge about the spoken language, and (possibly) residual hearing. But lipreading is far from a perfect way to communicate. Even with skilled lip readers, only 30–45% of the English language is possible to understand through lipreading. If this surprises you, watch Can You Read My Lips? The short video sheds light on lipreading from the perspective of a deaf person.

7. Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS)

These services allow people with varying hearing or speech abilities to make and receive phone calls. With traditional text-to-voice TRS, an operator acts as a go-between for a deaf or HOH person (using a text-based phone) and a hearing person (using a standard phone). The operator reads the texts to the hearing person, and then texts what they’re saying to the deaf or HOH person.

Related: The Language Access Materials You Need to Know About

8. Video Relay Service (VRS)

ASL-IPP demonstrates a video relay call from a sign language speaker to a Spanish speaker. The sign language interpreter relays the communication from the individual who is deaf to the hearing individual.

VRS is another type of TRS that helps deaf and hearing people communicate with each other. Whereas text-to-voice TRS uses text-based technology, VRS connects the user to a VRS communications assistant (CA) — who is also an ASL interpreter — through a video link. The CA then calls the hearing individual that the deaf person needs to communicate with. From there, the CA relays the conversation between the deaf person (using ASL over video) and the hearing individual (speaking English over the phone).

9. Video Remote Interpreting (VRI)

With VRI, an ASL interpreter is connected by video to the deaf and hearing individual. The deaf and hearing individual may or may not be in the same room, but the ASL interpreter is always remote. The ASL interpreter interprets the conversation between deaf and hearing people over a video screen.

Let’s Talk About It 

CLI sees access to interpreting services as a fundamental human right. And we’re here to help make that happen! Our VRI solution delivers on-demand certified ASL interpreters 24/7/365, so you can make sure you’re providing effective communication to your deaf and HOH customers no matter what. 

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