It’s often one of the first things people ask when they meet me, whether it’s at some orientation event, a new doctor appointment, or some other setting:

“Can You Read Lips?”

These people know that I’m deaf. Perhaps I told them immediately (rather than dragging it out), perhaps they found out from someone else, or perhaps they saw my hearing aids and drew the logical conclusion. But they know in some way. In addition, my guess is that the people asking me that question also don’t have much experience communicating with other deaf and hard of hearing people.

Taking that last assumption into account, I’m often surprised at how many have defaulted to this as their first nontrivial statement to me (or more generally, when meeting their first deaf person). I don’t know where this phenomenon comes from. Was there some notable event or movement that popularized this notion? I can’t figure out anything matching this after a brief round of Googling.

After thinking for a while, it probably comes down to this: hearing people, when they think about deaf people, might first and foremost think about sign language. After all, it’s highly visible, as anyone who’s had a class with me can attest. If I were hearing, I imagine I would be fascinated during my first encounter with sign language.

But then a hearing person might wonder: how do deaf people communicate with hearing people without interpreters present? This must be where the myth (as I’ll explain shortly) of lip reading appeared.

To get back to the initial question of this post, and in part to relieve any reader of this blog post who might need to meet me for the first time later of asking me this question: yes, I can lip read. Now let’s go over the caveats. Here’s a very incomplete list:

  • Is the person who I’m communicating with trying to move his or her lips carefully? That makes it easy to lip read. At Williams, I was once part of a little lip reading exercise to see if we could read lips. But that fails to generalize to real conversations, because we tried hard to move our lips. Most people do not have that in mind when talking, especially because it’s usually not needed. And many people slur or speak in a way that inhibits lip movement.
  • Am I face-to-face with that person, in clear lighting? For obvious reasons, it’s easiest to lip read in those situations, and much harder when, for instance, we’re in a haunted house (sorry, I couldn’t think of a better example). From personal experience, it is also harder to lip read with someone when that person is talking over a screen, e.g., in Skype, even assuming excellent Internet connections.
  • Is the person a foreigner? On top of the already challenging task of understanding accents, part of the difficulty in communicating with them is that they may lack intuitive knowledge of certain frequencies when uttering words (as one of my statistics professors put it when we discussed this once). For instance, my grandmother is a Japanese-American and I have no hope of reading her lips at all.
  • Am I trying to lip read in a group conversation? On the one hand, lip-reading theoretically should easier than trying to listen normally because it “only” involves looking at one person’s mouth. In reality, group conversations often have sudden shifts in who does the talking, or people can talk simultaneously. Finally, most people will not be face-to-face with me.

Having said all that, under the best of circumstances, I can do some lip reading. I do not, however, think my lip reading abilities are multiple standard deviations better than those of the average hearing person, especially because I haven’t had any formal lip reading training.

But more training might not matter. Even if my skills were as good as humanly possible, the above list of caveats should make a convincing case that lip reading as a panacea for deaf people’s communication difficulties is a myth.

Ava, the company I introduced in last week’s blog post, has their own blog, and mentions lip reading in a post titled “Let’s Talk About Tom, Your Colleague You Haven’t Heard About” (or as I like to think of it, “Daniel”). They mention:

Actually reading lips is really, really hard. Despite year-long trainings for that, you only can hope to get 20–30% better. What’s even worse? In English, only 30% can be distinguished with lipreading.

These numbers are almost certainly arbitrary and wildly inaccurate, but their general point is correct: lip reading just cannot convey all the information someone says. It is much less effective than just hearing someone say something. If, given the choice between no lip reading skills and wearing my current hearing aids, or having lots of lip reading skills but no hearing aids at all, I would prefer the former scenario. My hearing aids, while an imperfect remedy, are far more helpful than lip reading can and will be.

In the future, if anyone emails me to ask the obligatory “Can I Lip Read?” question, I will send them the link to this blog post. If it’s in person … I’ll provide a 20-second version of this post. This doesn’t mean I dislike it when people ask these questions. To the contrary, I actually take a slightly positive stance towards it. Yes, it gets tiring, but at least it seems like people are curious and genuinely want to be helpful, and in some cases we can get the conversation going to other, more interesting topics.