Death To the Magical Lipreading Trope

Imagine that there were a bunch of straight writers – books, TV, movies, the lot – who, long ago, had somehow gotten it into their heads that all gay people are telepathic. These gay telepaths kept showing up across all media. The straight people who consumed this media absorbed the message that gay people are telepathic, and when they wrote their own books, TV, movies, etc., their gay characters were also telepathic. It’s everywhere, so it’s true, right?

But take it a step further – imagine that doctors refused to actually speak to gay people, to use their voices, because hey, gay people are telepaths! Mind-reading is so much more convenient! Or that when gay people had an encounter with the police, the police would insist on telepathy, too. No speech, absolutely not, telepathy or nothing.

Even though gay people are not telepathic.

And deaf people cannot magically understand everything via lipreading. I swear.

A bit ago, I tweeted this:

I am deaf. A vital medical appointment had been scheduled with little notice; I requested an ASL interpreter but knew I might have to be satisfied with video remote interpreting (VRI). That was the case.

Yet for unknown reasons, the hospital both put a VRI rig in my room and refused to turn it on. Nurses kept talking to me from behind masks and shaking their heads and gesturing to their masks when I asked them why they weren’t turning on the VRI. I kept reiterating that I am entirely deaf, and couldn’t understand them, so please turn on VRI and/ or write, but that had no effect. When the polite approach failed, I moved on to demanding that they write. This was ignored several times. Then I went into scary mode, and the writing began. It’s shown in the photo.

This what the nurse wrote when I asked why THEY REFUSED TO TURN ON THE VRI THAT WAS RIGHT THERE.

“Clear masks,” was her response. Clear masks were on their way, which would let me lipread, which would resolve everything…. no?


A thousand times no.

This nurse, to her credit, wanted to understand. After I explained – that lipreading is a messy guessing game, that it’s utterly inappropriate in a medical setting to substitute it for a requested ASL interpreter, that even though I use my voice that means nothing about my lipreading ability or tolerance for it – she thanked me and said she had learned something today.

Far too many people really think this – that all deaf people can lipread easily and flawlessly, and that it’s a viable communication mode.

This nurse did, and the responses to my tweet showed that this misconception is really widespread. It’s also something I run into over and over again in my work as a sensitivity reader. So I’m compiling some of the things that I wish every hearing person knew.

“Lipreading” is Just Educated Guessing

Only about 30% of speech sounds are at all visible. Like, not visible with training – just visible at all, without x-ray vision. Most of word formation takes place inside the mouth.

And much of what’s visible appears to be exactly the same even when it’s very different sounds. My daughter had three friends named Emmy, Cami, and Gabby, and we had to establish name signs for them because that shit looked identical.

What this means is that lipreading is about making guesses. This can be fine and appear to be flowing well in some circumstances – if I run into you I know you’re likely to say some variation of “Hey how are you?” and I can look for what variation that is. (I also have many ways of providing a response that can match several possible questions if I’m not sure enough about what was asked: see “Deaf People Are Great At Bluffing,” below.)

But it’s a fragile thing that can collapse pretty easily.

So Many Things Can Mess Up Lipreading

For lipreading to go well (a partial list):

  • Lighting must be good (enough light, no backlighting, no severe shadows).
  • The speaker must be readable (facing the lipreader, no or minimal facial hair, nothing covering face like hands or hair).
  • The speaker should be linear and predictable.
  • NO OVER-ENUNCIATING. Speaking naturally is more important than speaking “clearly.”
  • Distractions must be minimal.
  • Stakes and emotions should be low (a pleasant “How about this weather?” conversation is much easier to understand than a scary medical conversation).
  • The lipreader must have enough energy (lipreading is extremely mentally taxing).
  • The speaker should yield control of the conversation (let the lipreader ask a lot of questions and steer the course of the conversation).
  • NO MONOLOGUES. The longer a speech goes from the point at which the lipreader definitely knew what was going on – that is, when we were last able to say something – the harder it is to understand. Frequent give-and-take is the easiest to understand.
  • One person is infinitely easier to understand than two or more. As more people are added, difficulty increases exponentially.
  • Awareness of context (it’s much easier to follow along if you already know most of it and a few new pieces of info are being introduced).
  • The conversation is stationary (not being held while walking, for example).
  • The speaker is nearby but not too close (I would say 4-8 feet is the sweet spot).

Deaf People Are Often Great at Bluffing

“I’ve talked to a deaf person who lipread me perfectly!,” you may say. To which I say…. are you sure?

Lipreading is fucking exhausting. Hearing people want us to do it all the time. This means that we have to pick our battles, and sometimes just nodding and smiling our way through an interaction is the sanity-saver.

And a chunk of us are super good at this. It is trivial for me to have an entire conversation with someone who thinks I understood everything, when I did not actually grasp one single thing.

I used to do this more often – I try not to now both because of how doing so might contribute to misconceptions, and because now I usually have more bandwidth to demand accessible communication.

But it’s also not as simple as, “Never bluff.” Explaining that you actually can’t understand or asking to use other modes of communication never seems to go smoothly or quickly. And just walking away or otherwise shutting things down when explaining isn’t working is often seen as aggressively rude – I’ve gotten in dicey situations when I’ve tried that. We aren’t given a lot of good options when a hearing person is intent upon speaking to us.

“Deaf” and “Hard of Hearing” are Different

Everything I’ve said so far is in terms of a deaf person lipreading. By “deaf,” here, I mean someone who does not sense enough sound for it to be useful, and so they do not rely on sound or do so very sparingly.

“Hard of hearing” refers to someone who does sense usable sound, often via a hearing aid. In this case, lipreading can significantly augment what is being heard. A hard of hearing person can use lipreading to have the kind of flawless conversations we see supposedly deaf people have in these media representations – and these hard of hearing people would not be able to understand as much if it was not for lipreading. It’s a valuable tool, when used in tandem with a good amount of sound.

It’s very different when someone does NOT have access to that sound. When what we’re talking about is lipreading, all by itself.

Not Every Deaf Person Lipreads

I became deaf as a teenager. I also had my hearing cut in and out a lot when I was a kid, for unknown reasons. And when I started to become deaf, my hearing fluctuated wildly over the course of a few years.

This fluctuation – not hearing, then hearing, over and over again – means that my malleable kid brain created a bunch of helpful pathways and I am able to get a lot more out of lipreading than is typical. Even so, I have all of these limitations – as someone who is extremely atypical, I still don’t even come close to all of those magical lipreaders.

But – I’m atypical. Many, many, MANY deaf people do not lipread at all, and don’t want to. While all that I’ve said so far applies to me, you can’t assume it applies to all deaf people. NEVER ASSUME A DEAF PERSON CAN OR WANTS TO READ LIPS.

If you’re not a creator of deaf characters, this is all still important. Please take this information to heart and remember it if you have an interaction with a deaf person.

But if you ARE a creator of deaf characters, you have the ability to create real change here. Please, I beg of you, don’t give your deaf character magical lipreading abilities. This doesn’t mean zero lipreading – it can exist, in ways that make sense. (See above.) But don’t have your characters understand everything perfectly on the first try while they are running with a group of hearing people through a candlelit cavern and a monster is chasing them.

This misrepresentation will not only turn off the deaf readers who hoped to find themselves in whatever you’ve created; it has real-life impacts. Deaf people face literal life-and-death situations because hearing people think we should all be able to lipread.

Kill off the magical lipreading trope once and for all.

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