Skip to main content

Deaf and hard-of-hearing people have different methods for communicating, and often find it hard to communicate where too much hearing is involved.

Deaf and hard-of-hearing people prefer to use methods that are visual – methods they can see. Remember to take care in selecting the best communication method(s) for the communities you choose to connect and engage with.

Visual communication strategies can include:


Auslan is the natural language of the Deaf community in Australia and is its own language.

Auslan conveys ideas by signs, facial expressions, body languages and lip patterns.

It has its own grammar, rules and sentence structures, which are different from English. The order of signs in sentences is not normally the same order as words in an English sentence.

Auslan uses ‘fingerspelling’, where each letter in the English alphabet has a sign. Auslan users fingerspell to spell out a word when there is no sign for the word or when they do not know the sign for it.

Auslan uses 38 hand shapes.

Most Deaf and hard-of-hearing people use Auslan, but is also used by hearing people who want to interact with deaf or hard-of-hearing people who use Auslan. 

  • Have an ability to learn the grammatical structures and large vocabulary of the language
  • Ability to move hands in a complex series of movements
  • Recognise the signs when they are used by others during interactions
  • Be familiar with / know as many signs used by the community or group.
  • Use signing regularly when interacting with the community.
  • Practice signing often to keep up to date.
  • Encourage the person you support to sign when necessary.
  • Know the etiquette of Auslan and follow it.
  • Help set up environments that encourage signing.
  • Know how to support someone to access and work with a qualified and certified interpreter.
  • Have access to an Auslan dictionary.

A range of community classes are available throughout Australia. You can enquire about classes or courses and purchase traditional Auslan dictionaries from your state Deaf society or online. Additional online Auslan resources like Auslan Sign Bank can help you look up particular signs (note: it will not teach you the grammar of the language).

Lip Reading

Lip reading focuses on the movements of a person’s mouth. This is a receptive communication strategy.

  • Lip Reading is an immensely difficult skill and involves a lot of guesswork.
  • It may not be possible or recommended in situations where the person is concentrating on another activity.
  • It is also difficult if the person speaking has facial hair, is smoking or eating. This makes it hard to work out lip patterns.
  • Face the light so the person can see your face.
  • Stay within 1-2 metres from the person.
  • Sit or stand at eye level.
  • Repeat if the person doesn’t understand, but say it again in a different way.


Low-technology but an effective solution, provided the people involved in an interaction have adequate literacy skills.

Can be a receptive communication strategy to help better understand messages that they cannot hear or make sense of in other ways.

There are different ways to use written material (depending on the intended purpose). For example:

  • Using a calculator to show the cost of items in numbers
  • Pre-printed cards with requests for people to follow or explain how to communicate with them
  • Having a small portable whiteboard and marker
  • Writing in the air with a finger (could be harder for people with intellectual disabilities)
  •  Paper / bold pens
  •  Email / texting
  • Computerised devices to show messages on a screen
  • TTYs (teletypewriters)
  • Good literacy skills
  • Adequate vision
  • Ability to improvise and quickly write messages
  • Be familiar with the literacy skills of the person you support to be able to help when required (but encourage as much independence as possible).
  • Encourage the person to use writing when necessary and carry the required tools with them at all times.
  • Carry paper and pen in case it is necessary.
  • Be prepared to explain to others how they can support the use of the strategy.


  • Uses hand and body movement / movements to ‘act out’ a word or situation.
  • Used frequently by people in the typical population several times each day. It is a part of normal communication.
  • Use gestures as an expressive or receptive communication strategy.
  • Sign gestures are signed alongside spoken language to make the meaning of words clearer.

To aid a person’s comprehension the person needs to have the following:

  • The ability to make sense of the gestures and know what they mean
  • Good vision

To use gestures effectively:

  • Recognise when they have not been understood
  • Know when to use gestures
  • Have some ability to move hands/body/face to make gestures that are understood by others
  • Find out what gestures the person you support can understand and use.
  • Use the gestures the person understands as part of your everyday interactions.
  • Talk at the same time as you use gestures (unless you do not need to).
  • Encourage the use of gestures if you cannot make sense of what is being communicated to you.
  • Ask to be shown in a different way if you cannot understand their meaning.
  • Always check that you have understood correctly.

Alerting Devices

Large range of alerting devices developed specifically to communicate important messages to people through the use of lights, vibrations or coded messages. They are sent to a pager or device worn by or otherwise attached on the person.

Items include smoke alarms, flashing-light alarms and door bells, alarm clocks or baby monitors.

To effectively use these devices the person must be able to

  • Understand what the messages from the device mean
  • Have access to the device when necessary
  • Be aware of which alerting devices are used by the people you communicate with.
  • Know how to work each device.
  • Know who to contact if the device does not work.
  • Provide support to ensure batteries / power source is replaced before they run out.
  • Encourage them to be as independent as possible in the use of a device.

More information on alerting devices can be found on the following websites:

Guide Dogs SA and NT (opens in a new window)

Deaf Quip (opens in a new window)

i Hear NZ (opens in a new window)

National Deafblind Information Hub (opens in a new window)

Word of Mouth Technology (opens in a new window)

Key Word Signing

Mainly used by and with people who have lower literacy levels or people who have intellectual disabilities (may or may not have hearing loss).

Only the main words/concepts or the message are signed (complex language systems are not used).

The message is usually spoken at the same time when signing (where possible), especially if it is used to aid the person to understand. 

It is a less complex version of signing that can be adapted to suit the language level of each individual.

  • You should be able to recognise/interpret a range of signs (vary from small to large)
  • Person must have some ability to move his/her hands. Note that signs can be adapted for people who have physical disabilities. There are some sign systems that use one hand together with other body parts.
  • You should be able to recognise signs if they are signed by other people
  • Be familiar with all signs used and know as many signs as possible.
  • Use signing regularly when interacting with the community.
  • Practice signing often to keep up to date.
  • Encourage the person you support to sign when necessary.
  • Act as an ‘interpreter’ when necessary.

Communication Books or Boards

These help people to get their message across and are an expressive communication tool. The type and complexity of the message(s) can be altered to suit each individual person.

It is useful for people who have limited verbal communication, intellectual disability or limited literacy skills, whether they have a hearing difficulty or not.

The person using the book or board will select items from the book to convey the required message.

It can be presented in many different ways, including:

  • Portable whiteboard – items can be drawn, written, or stuck on as necessary.
  • Books with many pages – often they are colour coded in different categories to make it easier to find an item. They can be made to suit the person’s unique needs.
  • A board of any size – these could include a large wooden board with real objects glued on to indicate choices. The board would be fixed to a wall.
  • Important that the book/board uses a visual mode that the person can make sense of (words, pictures, symbols, photos or real objects)
  • Establish a way of selecting a message (pointing, nodding, pushing a button, looking at desired button, or indicating when someone else has chosen the correct item on the person’s behalf)
  • Ensure the person is able to see or feel each item on the book or board to choose the message they want
  • Be clear on what messages the book or board will be used for (esp. important for sophisticated books that may have many pages)
  • Be familiar with the layout of the communication book/board so can assist effectively with its use
  • Encourage the use of the book/board and make sure it is available at all times
  • Be able to explain to other people what the book/board is for and how it works (this will encourage them to interact with the person you support).
  • Respond to all uses of the book/board

Communication Passport or ‘Book About Me’

This is different to a communication book. It is intended for the purpose of information sharing rather than expressive communication. The person with communication challenges isn’t expected to respond or interact with others who are using the book.

It usually explains information about a person to others when they are unable to provide the information themselves.

It helps communication partners get to know the person and notice strengths that might otherwise go unnoticed. It also helps us learn how to communicate with the person in the most effective way.

The communication passport can be presented in different ways and can include the following information:

  • About me
  • About my family
  • Important information
  • How my hearing difficulty impacts me
  • Key support tips to meet my hearing and communication needs
  • Likes and dislikes
  • Friendships / relationships
  • Communication / comprehension

This strategy is primarily for the use of communication partners.

  • Be familiar with the information in the book
  • Help to keep the book up to date
  • Encourage new communication partners to read the book
  • Make sure the book is available to communication partners at all times

Visual Comprehension Strategies

Information that is visually presented to help a person understand. It is a receptive communication tool.

Usually used for people who find it easier to understand what they see in pictures/writing, rather than what is said or signed to them.

Particularly useful for people who have intellectual disabilities.

  • Must be able to interpret or make sense of visual images that are presented. Note that not everyone is able to make sense of visual images easily, particularly those with intellectual disabilities.
  • Must be able to see the visual images (right size and colour for the person’s visual ability).
  • Must be able to understand and be aware that there is sequence involved (if relevant/applicable).

It is important to develop individualised strategies and get support from a professional to do this. Seek advice or guidance from someone with the skills in the area of communication:

  • Speech-language therapists or assistants
  • Psychologists
  • Occupational therapists
  • Behaviour support specialists
  • Make sure the person understands what is expected, what the pictures / symbols mean (you may need to teach these first).
  • Know what you need to make the strategy as successful as possible.
  • Use the strategy consistently – this will help a person understand a ‘change’ if it has been used every day/regularly.
  • Encourage use of the strategy and make sure it is available for use at all appropriate times.
  • Update the strategy as necessary.