Read my lips
By Kate Bohdanowicz
When I tell people I’m a lipspeaker, they invariably assume I mean lipreader, and go on to ask if I’m working for the police on an undercover operation.
The truth is possibly less eyebrow raising, but highly essential – my job is to provide support for deaf people who communicate through lipreading.
Anyone who is deaf, deafened or hearing impaired, and who follows the English language, could use a lipspeaker. And it is within their legal right to access this free of charge.
Lipspeakers are hearing people who repeat what the speaker says, silently and with a clear lip pattern, removing repetition or redundant ‘umms’ and ‘ahs’, and delivering the speech at an easy-to-follow pace.
We use facial expression and natural gesture to replicate the speaker’s tone and meaning. We can also use fingerspelling to denote between words that look identical on the lips – eg ‘few’ and ‘view’.
We are a professional body, registered with the National Registers of Communication Professionals working with Deaf
and Deafblind People (NRCPD), in the same way British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters are. But there are fewer than 50 registered lipspeakers in the UK.
My lipspeaking journey began when I met my partner, illustrator Tim Reedy, in 2012. Deaf from the age of four after contracting meningitis, Tim was brought up with hearing parents, went to Mary Hare deaf school and is a lipreader.
Tim said: “I’ve been using lipspeakers for 20 years. When I first booked one for work, it made me realise how much information I could take in, compared to lipreading. I’d get all the detail – dates, times and names – a lot of which I wouldn’t get before.”
I like to think I became increasingly deaf aware as our relationship progressed, but I wince as I recall the amount of times Tim was left out of social events. Being deaf in a group of hearing people can be isolating.
But then in 2015, I was diagnosed with bladder cancer, and we had a series of emotionally charged hospital appointments. Tim asked the hospital to book a lipspeaker so he had full access to the life and death decisions being made.
I realised that, without a lipspeaker, he would emerge from the appointments with limited knowledge of the conversation, and with a lipspeaker present he was fully aware of what had been said. It was an eye-opener for me.
I’m astonished at how many deaf or hard-of-hearing people are expected to manage; to get by with some gurning on the
speaker’s part, overthe-top hand gestures, and unnecessary shouting. And if the speaker struggles to get their point across, they often give up.
I’ve lost count of the times people who are having a conversation with Tim become frustrated by lapses in understanding and start talking to him through me.
Even the most proficient of lipreaders will only capture around 40% of the conversation. And if the person talking has facial hair, a strong accent, a lisp or a tendency to mumble, it can prove extremely difficult. And tiring. Oh so tiring.
Deaf, deafened or hard-of-hearing lipreaders are within their rights to have communication support in the same way as a BSL-user would have an interpreter. Under the Equality Act, health and social care services should provide a lipspeaker free
of charge. Access to Work, can enable lipspeaking provision in the workplace and Disabled Students’ Allowance is available for lipspeaking in an educational setting.
Most lipspeakers have a BSL qualification and many can offer sign-supported English. Some lipreaders prefer pure lipspeaking, while others ask for lipspeaking with signs. As long as the right support is requested at the time of booking, the
right lipspeaker will arrive.
As Covid-19 has pressed pause on many face-to-face meetings, lipspeakers are also available to work remotely.
Tim said: “With a lipspeaker, I feel empowered and on an equal footing with my peers. It gives me peace of mind.”
So no, I don’t do undercover work. Although as a proficient lipreader himself, Tim has been booked to lipread for the newspapers, and for the Football Association. I could tell you more but, for once, my lips are sealed.
Kate Bohdanowicz is a London-based lipspeaker who is willing to travel. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
To find a lipspeaker near you, visit the Association of Lipspeakers website www.lipspeaking.co.uk
Kate’s article features in our latest issue of inTouch, download it here.
Photographs by Dean Brannagan.