University of Vermont

The Center on Disability and Community Inclusion (CDCI), Universal Design for Learning

Teaching Accommodations

How to Work With Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students

Having students who are deaf or hard of hearing in a classroom can be a great challenge tothe level of accessibility of a class, but can also serve as a catalyst for making effective UDL-focused changes that improve the classroom experience for everyone.

Interacting with students who are deaf or hard of hearing: There are a few key characteristics to be aware of when interacting with people who are deaf or hard of hearing. First, the level of "usable" hearing varies greatly from person to person. Second, they may or may not speak, and communication may or may not require an ASL interpreter. One must be very careful in making assumptions. You might meet one person who is deaf or hard of hearing who speaks and converses as would a fully hearing person would, while others would only use American Sign Language (ASL). It also is a common fallacy to assume that if a person is speaking, they must also understand what you are saying.

Typical barriers that limit the effectiveness of a course for students who are deaf or hard of hearing include:

  • Lack of captions for any video or web videos;
  • Oral-intensive lecture styles;
  • Group work and break out sessions that involve quick discussions with mostly hearing peers;
  • Fast moving classes in which there is no time allowed for interpreters to catch up with material; and,
  • Notetaking, which is made difficult by having to watch all at once; the interpreter, the professor, and any visuals such as the writing on the board or powerpoint slides.

"UDLifically" speaking, the single greatest barrier is the typical lecture class which is definitely not deaf-friendly. Intensive interactions can also be cumbersome due to time needed for information processing on the interpreter's behalf, which is greatly strained in advanced courses, or courses that have tons of specific terminology which require a lot of spelling since signs for terminology may not exist. Ask an interpreter about the last time they had to interpret a math class with differential equations! It can be very challenging.

a hand with a pen writing on a blue tabletInterpreters and Notetakers: Students who are deaf or hard of hearing will often require or benefit from accommodations in the form of an ASL interpreter, a volunteer notetaker (which is usually another student in the same class), and captions for any videos used in class. What's interesting is that some of these accommodations are actually quite beneficial to other students without disabilities or with different types of learning challenges. For example, note taking is somewhat difficult for students who are deaf or hard of hearing because they rely more on watching what is going on in a classroom. This makes it difficult to look down and write notes. Unless the professor is willing to stop speaking while the students look down to take notes, the students who are deaf or hard of hearing will miss what the professor is saying while they write. Assigning a notetaker is an oft-requested accommodation.

From a UDL perspective,it makes more sense to implement a note taking system for the class rather than as an accommodation for just one student.These notes can then be made available to the whole class, avoiding any stigma associated with getting "extra help" on the part of the student with identified need. UDL@UVM advocates establishing ways to make note taking an entire class affair, sort of "built into" the course- thus eliminating the need for the 'accommodation' from the course.

Here's one way to implement a class note taking system:

  • Assign three to five notetakers per class
  • At the end of the class, each note taking student uploads their notes into blackboard (or course website)
  • All students in the class can use their favorite or all of the notes to reinforce their learning and understanding of the lecture

This accomplishes a lot more than it looks. First, it introduces a sort of competition: students are likely to try to outdo each other with the quality and/or originality of the notes. One professor demonstrated that five sets of notes from the same class had varying levels of supplemental information added. He found that some of the students would google information mentioned in the class and add images, sound, and/or other rich media to their notes, thus applying the material in a way that would never occur in individual, private notes. When students are able to see five different perspectives on the same lecture, they are then able to better assimilate the material. It is likely that with five different versions of similar notes, a higher chance occurs that one set of notes will make more sense for an individual student.

President Obama speaking with captions on the screen

Captions: Making sure that all class videos are captioned is probably the most difficult to arrange type of accommodation for deaf or hard of hearing students. Fortunately, there are resources on campus to help you with this. If the student makes use of UVM's ACCESS services, then ACCESS will assist in getting the materials captioned. To see more on this, please check out the ACCESS Deaf and Hard of Hearing services webpage. While most new DVD's have either subtitles or captions (sometimes even both) most old VHS tapes still in media services often do not. ACCESS can check these tapes, and then research to see if a updated DVD is available, barring other solutions, the only way to get an old VHS tape captioned is to send it out to be captioned. Because of the time it takes, ACCESS tries to caption everything before the semester starts, as it can take 2 weeks to a month in turnaround time. When ordering DVDs it is always best that faculty or departments purchase captioned versions. Just as note taking benefits many students other than those who are deaf or hard of hearing, captioning supports the understanding of speech in a DVD for everyone. Think of the last time you tried to listen to the news or a TV program while in a noisy place. Captioning has the potential to help everyone.

Here are some great UDL practices by professors or instructors that are especially appreciated by students who are deaf or hard of hearing and benefit everyone:
  • Using lots of visuals;
  • Facing the class and engaging people with eye contact;
  • Repeating questions or makes a comments students make. Students sometimes murmur or speak in low, hushed tones, and interpreters and other students sometimes do not catch what they are saying.
  • Allowing time after sentences, or between thoughts, or after a question/comment. This will allow the interpreter to catch up, especially if you are asking the class if they have any questions. A TTY phone for the deaf with a voice phone on it
  • Keeping in mind that ASL interpreters are about 1 to 5 seconds behind you as you speak. This is because they are usually waiting for the idea behind your words so they can interpret it. ASL is not a word-for-word translation of your speech.
  • If you want to call a deaf student, you might have to use a relay service. Most deaf people have a direct number that automatically connects you to an interpreter and the deaf person when you call. Typically these use a video device of some kind. (VRS= video relay service) In the past, deaf people would use equipment called a TTY. These were cumbersome, slow ways to communicate.
For more information, check out these resources:
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