The holiday season has commenced, and we can all recognize Thanksgiving as a joyful occasion that can also be a bit overwhelming. While the season represents togetherness and a time to connect, for Deaf and hard-of-hearing people, it can also be a reminder of inaccessibility. Gathering with friends and family has a tendency to induce anxiety for all of us, and particularly for those whose primary language is visual.
There’s a good chance that even before making it to the dinner table, many conjure ideas about how they can bow out of the conversation in order to avoid the dreaded Dinner Table Syndrome. A phenomenon in which Deaf people are excluded from dinner conversations when surrounded by hearing people, Dinner Table Syndrome can make it difficult for Deaf and hard-of-hearing people to engage in discourse.
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Disengagement from the conversation can be the go-to coping mechanism for anyone who feels unseen or unheard. Fortunately, there are simple solutions to resolve most communication obstacles and promote inclusivity for all.
A Deaf-Friendly Thanksgiving Dinner
The spectrum of Deafness is vast with different communication preferences in different group situations. Understanding the diverse methods of conversing to ensure Deaf and hard-of-hearing guests are equally engaged in conversation is key. Raising Deaf awareness in order to break down communication barriers is a holiday challenge we can all embrace.
With large groups and mouths full of food, the value of speech cues at a dinner table is limited. Group conversations can be fast, unpredictable and devoid of context, making it hard for even hearing people to follow along. Lipreading becomes particularly difficult when multiple people are talking simultaneously and numerous conversations are happening at the same time.
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As a host, be mindful of seating arrangements as that can make a big difference. Positioning Deaf/hard-of-hearing guests in the middle of the table allows clearer sight lines for lip-reading. Reaching out to your guests ahead of time to ask if they have a seating preference can also go a long way in making the dining experience more enjoyable.
Assistive Technology for a Deaf Thanksgiving
Assistive technology can be extremely useful in social settings. Hearing aids help bring voices closer and isolate vocal sound when background noise interferes. Hearing accessories, like a table microphone, can enhance sound considerably. A table microphone can be placed in the center of the dining table to amplify the conversation and transmit it directly to a hearing aid.
Alternatively, speech-to-text applications such as Ava can be instrumental in live captioning a conversation, particularly group conversations with multiple speakers. The transcription feature color-codes speakers to identify who is speaking. Technological solutions like Ava that assist with accessibility allow Deaf and hard-of-hearing people to follow and engage in dinner table discussions.
Image Source: Ava.me
Best Practices for Inclusive Holiday Dining
- Light the Way
- For those who lip-read or rely on visual cues for communicating, dim lighting can be problematic and worsen concentration fatigue. Make sure lighting is bright and centerpieces are put aside to keep views unobstructed.
- Reduce Noise
- A loud environment or background distractions can overpower communication. Reducing the noise level of holiday music, or turning it off completely, can make conversations easier to hear at an already busy table. There’s also merit in informing everyone in attendance to take turns talking — and face the person they are speaking to — to make conversations more audible.
- Introduce an ASL ‘Buddy’
- As a host, check to see if any other guests joining know sign language. If there is someone who knows ASL, be sure to make an introduction upon arrival and seat the two guests together. Having a point of contact who can assist with conversation can help relieve anxiety.
- Label Dishes
- Making sense of the auditory chaos at a Thanksgiving dinner table requires a lot of focus. Give your Deaf and hard-of-hearing guests one less thing to worry about by taking the extra simple step of labeling your dishes.
- Attention to Table Manners
- Chewing distorts lip and facial expressions, making lip reading more challenging. Wiping your mouth with a napkin also obstructs visibility. Don’t speak with a mouthful of turkey, and try not to cover your mouth while speaking. It doesn’t hurt to give your hearing companions a gentle reminder to behave in Deaf-friendly ways.
Gratitude for Deaf Inclusivity
It doesn’t take much effort to leave a Deaf-friendly impression. Learning how to sign “thank you” in ASL or having a live caption app at the ready can go far in creating a positive, memorable and accessible interaction between Deaf and hearing guests.
While Deaf people can advocate for their right to understand and be understood in dining situations, hearing people can aspire to narrow the communication gaps, as well. When hosts understand the needs of their guests and are willing to accommodate them, it elevates the dining experience for everyone in attendance.
Making your Thanksgiving dinner an inclusive one gives Deaf and hard-of-hearing people the opportunity to have a comfortable seat at the table. This year, make a difference by turning your table into a Deaf-friendly setting where the conversation is as nourishing as the food and a place where everyone can participate.