What is Dinner Table Syndrome?

Many deaf and hard of hearing children come from hearing families in which the majority do not know sign language. Consider the experience a deaf individual might have compared to a hearing individual at the dinner table. As a result of this, many DHH people struggle to gain regular access to socialization and communication in their daily lives. Imagine a group of people starting to laugh uncontrollably at the table while a deaf individual questions themselves and asks the nearest person, “What’s so funny?” Often, they will receive a response like, “Oh, it’s nothing” or “I’ll tell you later.” This type of social interaction could lead anyone to experience the depths of isolation and frustration.

According to Sara Novic, “Deaf people have a term for the isolation that grows out of being surrounded by non-signing hearing people: ‘Dinner Table Syndrome’ ” (2016). Many hearing families do not realize they are contributing to language deprivation and inaccessibility to their deaf relatives. Dr. Henner, a deaf assistant professor at the University of North Carolina stated, “People learn language and get information not only from direct teaching but also indirect exposure” (Novic, 2016). Hearing children are exposed to things like background noises that constantly reinforce their language abilities— while deaf children do not always have the same privilege. Since many families do not sign, deaf children are deprived of important information that may be happening around them, such as background conversations. Many DHH children may recluse themselves by going off in their room to read or watch television. It’s become easier for DHH children to excuse themselves and interact virtually rather than experience things like family time and forming deeper connections with others face-to-face.

For many families, the upcoming holidays are perfect for catching up and spending time with one another. But for some DHH individuals, this time spent with family can leave them feeling full of dread and isolation. It’s important to note that communication with deaf relatives is still possible for families that do not know sign language. Perhaps they are just not familiar with some of the basic accommodations that can be made during these gatherings. For instance, using gestures can go a long way. And with a lot of relatives watching television during the holidays, it’s important to be mindful if the big game or holiday parade is on to include deaf guests (NDC, 2019). The most important thing you can do is to turn on the closed captioning on the television before guests arrive (NDC, 2019). If you do not know how to turn closed captioning on, you can ask a deaf guest when they arrive. They will appreciate your consideration and efforts to include them. By simply adding captions, families can “help deaf people follow what is happening on the television, especially in a noisy or busy environment” (NDC, 2019). Another accommodation for families to consider is pitching in funds to hire an interpreter (NDC, 2019). This could be an exciting experience for everyone involved—and who knows, maybe hearing relatives can learn some new signs. And if hiring an interpreter is not possible, there are still other options available such as speech-to-text services (NDC, 2019). Speech to text is an app which is similar to common tech devices like Siri or Alexa. It can translate what is  being said to text.

Understanding the importance of language deprivation is critical in helping families recognize the problems faced by their deaf relatives and friends. Families can work toward solving these problems by providing the support and accommodations necessary to include deaf relatives. By familiarizing oneself with the different accommodations available to DHH individuals, it should be much easier for hosts of gatherings to create an enjoyable experience for all.


NDC. (2019). A Holiday for the Whole Family: Tips to Include Deaf Guests.

Sara Novic. (2016). Why ‘Dinner Table Syndrome’ is getting worse for deaf people.

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