As I’m not deaf, I’d like to share this question with our followers. I know many of them are d/Deaf/HoH so they may be able to help better than I can. I’ve written a deaf character myself in the past, so I’ve had to do a lot of research as well, but it’s always better to hear it first-hand.
I’d also like to highlight some posts from our website that may be of interest to you:
This post by Cece Bell about how she was mainstreamed and rejected sign language. I would especially recommend her memoir El Deafo—It’s a fantastic look at her experiences in a hearing setting, covering everything from different types of hearing aids to social isolation to the difficulty of lip-reading. It’s out in a few weeks and sounds invaluable for someone writing a character like yours!
Juana F.’s post about communication fatigue; it sounds like your character may well experience this.
Since you say you’ve done your research, you will likely know a lot of the common misconceptions Cristina Hartmann points out, but it can’t hurt to repeat.
Hopefully this is helpful, and good luck!
You recognize that communication preferences is an individual thing. Perhaps it would help to consider some of the background things that might influence his preferences. For example, I was diagnosed at age 3 (I was born in 1970 when technology was not available to diagnose hearing loss in new borns, so it was not as unusual then for diagnosis to be delayed until after it becomes obvious that the child is not learning to speak at the usual age. If your character is born in about the 1980s or 1990s or after, then the technology for diagnosing hearing loss in a new born is not only available but may be legally required to be used automatically with all new borns — I think this is more or less universal in all 50 states today, but at least for a while in I think the 1980s it was more of a patchwork thing where the state you’re born in affected whether you might automatically be screened for hearing loss or not).
More to the point, though, my parents signed up for sign language classes right away and started using it with me at home. This was slightly unusual back in that time because many parents of deaf children were raising their child “orally” (without sign language). (Another aside: Using sign language with deaf kids became more common for a while in the late 70s and through the 80s, but then cochlear implants became more common among children and even infants as doctors stopped seeing it as an “experimental” surgery to be reserved mostly for adults and started seeing it as more “standard” and okay to use with children. Cochlear implants, when successful, can HELP with lipreading, but lipreading will still remain very hard work for many if not all deaf children and adults with implants, but sadly many doctors don’t understand the communication fatigue thing and also don’t actually know anything about language acquisition in children—many tell parents of kids with implants that they must avoid using sign language on the misconception that this will stop the kid from learning proper speech and lip reading. So today, we are back to an era in which many more parents, especially of kids with cochlear implants, are not signing with their kid and expecting their kid to get by without sign language.) But, back to my story, I was already three years old without ANY language, not my own name, not the word for “Mom”, not in speech or writing or sign language. And they didn’t want to delay my language input any further by “waiting to see” if oralism might work for me before trying sign language. So I grew up seeing sign language as a perfectly natural and comfortable to communicate and just wished more people could sign so I could understand them better without wearing myself out trying to lipread them. I could speak well enough so most hearing native English speakers could understand me, and could lip read moderately well in some situations with some people, though with varying levels of skill. But I still preferred (and prefer today) to sign when that is an option.
On the other hand, if for some reason a kid doesn’t learn sign language right away, then there are two things that could happen when they’re first exposed to sign language. One possibility, if they’re at an age when fitting in with your peers is really important, is that maybe they won’t be comfortable “feeling different” and marking that difference by learning a different way to communicate. Or another possibility (at ANY age, even when “fitting in” matters) is that they suddenly realize that communication doesn’t have to be this onerous and wearying chore, it can be something that just happens as smoothly and easily as spreading softened butter into a hot roll. There’s this revelation, this huge thirst for learning more of the language and finally connecting with other peers who also know sign language. All this mingled with anger and resentment that they weren’t exposed to sign language long before this.
Random thoughts: I tire of seeing stories about champion lip readers. They DO exist but are not nearly so common in real life as they are in fiction. I would like to see more deaf characters who don’t really speak or lip read much at all, or who maybe speak but can really only be understood by family and people who have known them a very long time. And I would like to see more deaf people with “in between” lip reading skills — I can lip read many people in a one-on-one situation, but completely miss almost everything once there are any additional hearing non signers in the discussion. Turn taking may move swiftly, which means you miss the first one or three or five words a person is saying when they turn starts, and because you’ve missed that much and because being able to lip read (or more precisely, guess what people are saying) depends so very heavily on contextual cues, even just missing a few words—or even one—can be enough to suddenly cause everything else from that point on pretty much indecipherable because now you’ve lost the contextual cues that word could have given you to help you guess what words might make sense coming next in that sentence. So a person who does okay lip reading just one person, when talking with someone who actually remembers to keep facing them to let the deaf person see their lips clearly, might be completely unable to keep up with a group conversation (describes me perfectly).
But sometimes lip reading ability may vary depending on who you’re lip reading, Some people may be harder to lip read than others because they don’t cooperate well with slowing down and facing you: some people like this may mean well but just can’t remember, while others are people who are just very resistant to adapting to another person’s communication access needs. Some people may be harder to lip read because they have an accent, or because they have a lot of facial hair covering some of their lips. But sometimes there isn’t a clear reason why person X is easier to lipread than person Y, sometimes you just never know why it’s just the way it is. A lot of authors tend to ALWAYS have an easily “understandable” excuse for exactly why a deaf person couldn’t lip read something — it was too dark, the person was standing too far away, the deaf person couldn’t lip read them in profile, the person chewed gum while talking, whatever. And yes sometimes it’s easy enough to diagnose the problem whether it’s something that is easy to fix (the person needs to look at you while they speak) or not (the person has an accent they can’t help). But sometimes it’s just easier or harder without an obvious reason why. This can vary both from person to person and also from day to day (maybe the deaf person’s fatigue levels vary, affecting how well they can concentrate on lip reading, or maybe the conversation is about a topic that is new for the deaf person robbing them of cues and background knowledge that could help them guess better. Or, there is just no obvious reason at all, not even things you can try guessing at.)
Cristina Hartmann’s article, and Juana F.’s post are both good.