Lipspeaking is an art. Definitely. (Or should I say deafinitely?) Trained lipspeakers listen and repeat: they listen to a speaker and repeat their words without voice to a lipreading deaf person using clear lip patterns and additional communication cues, such as mirroring the speaker’s rhythm and emphasis on certain words to make it easier for the lipreader to pick up what is being conveyed in what can be a high-stress environment, such as meetings and conferences. Cued fingerspelling, giving the initial letter of difficult words, can be used, or lipspeaking in tandem with sign language (not all lipspeakers do this, but some are qualified in both: I’ve found from my experiences over the last 20 years that fingerspelling key letters seems to be much more common than signing accompaniment). There may be some element of summarising, dropping all the hesitancies and throat-clearings that characterise a lot of speakers, in the interests of keeping redundant speech to a minimum and keeping up with the flow. Even so, a good lipspeaker or BSL interpreter will usually convey that the original speaker is hesitating, perhaps by their facial expression, so that you have the full context of the speech/monologue/conversation. At a meeting, or where a conference speaker takes questions from the floor, the lipspeaker will indicate the direction of any new speaker.

At work generally, I manage just fine now in small groups without needing any communication support, but prefer to retain “live human” support at large meetings or conferences where the mumble quotient is likely to be high, or the risk of lively debate in the upper reaches of higher philosophical thought higher still (OK, people talking over each other!) Depending on the context, I’m happy to use either lipspeakers or BSL interpreters, who usually work in pairs if the assignment goes beyond a certain length of time, handing over from one to the other as they go on, often at 15-minute intervals. It keeps them fresh in a task which demands concentration from both communication professional and client, and I usually find the switch from one lipspeaker to another refreshing too, for the same reason. It’s also fascinating – watching different professionals doing exactly the same job. I love people-watching, and this is absolutely specialist people-watching . . .

When the speaker’s really boring I wonder if they ever think of the poor deaf woman in the corner who is looking alert with all her might (despite her eyelids drooping in the post-prandial graveyard slot) because someone is being paid for her to take part on an equal basis. I can’t waste these opportunities. (Though on one occasion I had a sympathetic lipspeaker who noted that I could barely prop my eyes open with matchsticks and suggested that we both had a ten-minute break contemplating the insides of our eyelids, since no-one else was listening anyway. Now that’s what I call equality – being able to join the serried ranks of sleepers at a conference.)

Sometimes a trusted colleague will lipspeak for me at an in-house meeting within our department. He’s not trained, but we have known one another for many, many years, virtually the full length of our respective careers within the organisation, and I can always absolutely rely on him to lipspeak what is said. (I can confirm this from what I can hear now.) This is just an organic solution that has grown up over the years in particular contexts, but I want to stress that this solution only works because everyone is prepared to be flexible and make it work. In other work contexts, my employers always provide external communication support.

In some ways it is easier for my colleague to take the reins sometimes because we both speak the same work-related jargon, so he knows what he says will be understood by me in the same spirit as he has given it. I’m usually full of admiration for communication professionals who must convey subject-matter in which they are not trained in such a way that they accurately reflect the speaker’s intention and enable the deaf person to receive it in exactly the same way. To be a conduit is hard.

Today my colleague lipspoke for me at a large in-house training meeting at which he was also a convenor, juggling roles and hats, introducing speakers, then sitting down beside them to lipspeak for me, and doing a large chunk of speaking himself. He’s a natural, no communication professional could have done any better. I really think he went over and above the call of duty in doing this at this particular event and deserved that pint at the pub! Thank you Mr B.