By Jean F. Andrews
I read a children’s story about a deaf boy who purportedly was able to lipread a warning through a heavy snow and wind storm from the back of a ferry boat as he and his classmates were traveling to school on the mainland. The deaf boy was able to lipread the man at the dock who was saying, “Go back! Go back!” Of course, they did and he was declared a hero. There is also a story about a Texas hero, Deaf Smith who helped to win the Texas Independence War in a series of battles against the Mexicans in 1836. As the story goes, Deaf Smith was a spy for the Texans and amazingly lipread the Mexican soldiers’ battle plans while perched in a tree overlooking the Mexican’s camp. Deaf Smith’s heroic deeds lead to the capture of Santa Ana, the Mexican general. And recently, there was an article about Mexico hiring deaf policemen who, according to the hyperbole in the article, were hired as they were using their lipreading skills to catch drug dealers.
Such tales, though entertaining, are misleading. They create a public perception of the general public toward lipreading. They cause the public to think that lipreading or speech reading is an effective mode of communication for deaf persons and that it is almost as effecting as hearing.
The deaf boy on the boat used visual clues such as the man’s body language to tell the boat captain to turn back the boat. And of course there were the weather clues! As for Deaf Smith, he was an experienced spy who understood the movements of the Mexican army. According to the historian, Dr. Steve Baldwin who has studied and written extensively about Deaf Smith from oil paintings, letters and archival literature, the hero Deaf Smith was postlingually deaf, married a woman from Mexico so he spoke fluent Spanish, and often disguised himself as a drunk and went undetected into the Mexican’s camps to study their movements. While there are folk legends that he lipread the enemy, his expertise as spy overrode the so-called lipreading skills. Now as for the deaf Mexican police, I would assume that they were using more than lipreading but they understood the behaviors, movements and culture of the drug dealers. Thus, it is not lipreading abilities per se, but the surrounding body language and other areas of expertise the deaf persons’ bring to the communication event.
What is lipreading?
Lipreading is the ability to understand conversational speech visually and without sound as it appears on the lips in order to comprehend a message and carry on a conversation.
Why is it difficult?
Lipreading is difficult because 42 sounds (phonemes) that make up English are either invisible or look like other sounds on the lips. The vowels are the most difficult to lipread because they are formed in the mouth out of view. The other one-third of the 42 sounds must to grasped quickly as they soon disappear from the lips.
What are obstacles to lipreading?
For one, sounds appearing on the lips are ambiguous. In addition, people may move their heads while talking, they may have a beard or moustache, be chewing gum, have protruding teeth, or may be eating. The lighting may be poor in the room. Further the deaf person may be tired. Deaf students in our program tell us many times, that late in the afternoons or during evening classes, their eyes are very tired of looking at signing as well as trying to lipread.
Who are the successful lipreaders?
The deaf boy in the boat, Deaf Smith, and the deaf Mexican policemen would not win awards for their lipreading! Indeed, research has shown that it is not deaf people who have studied and relied on lipreading for 12 to 16 years who are the good lipreaders, but that it is hearing college sophomores who are the best lipreaders. Why is this so? It is because lipreading depends a lot on guesswork and filling in the gaps or missing words to make sense of the sentences. College hearing sophomores have a command of the English language so they can easily lipread. For deaf people who do not have a command of English, lipreading is most difficult.
Lipreading is not related to intelligence. Persons will vary on their aptitude to lipread. Lipreading is more useful for those who have residual hearing or are hard of hearing. It is not useful for persons with profound and severe hearing losses, particularly those whose losses are congenital. If a person can add lipreading to amplification then lipreading abilities will increase.
In sum, lipreading is an inadequate form of communication for deaf persons and for many hard of hearing persons. It can be of some use if the words are familiar and are used in a routine context such as, “coffee?” “cream and sugar?” However, when the communication exchange becomes more complex as when a deaf suspect is given the Miranda Warning, then lipreading is inadequate.
Why do judges and prosecuting attorneys have difficulty with this concept? One reason is that when they view a videotape of a deaf person being interviewed by a detective or policeman, they hear the police and detective’s spoken language, see the questions in written form, look at the deaf suspects attempts and writing, and they assume that the deaf person with lipreading and written communication is understanding the interaction of being informed of their Constitutional Rights through Miranda. To further complicate the situation, when the deaf suspects nod and say yes, this further misleads the hearing officers and judges into thinking the deaf person is comprehending.
Such is not the case. Lipreading is not effective as a mode of communication by itself or even with writing, especially in cases involving Miranda and deaf persons.
Simms, D. (2009). NTID Speechreading: CID Everyday Sentences Test. RIT: Rochester, NY.
Vernon, M. & Andrews, J. (1990). The Psychology of Deafness: Understanding Deaf and Hard of Hearing People. New York: Longman. (pp. 100-103).
Jean F. Andrews is a Reading Specialist and Professor of Deaf Studies/Deaf Education at Lamar University.
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