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Back to School: Accessibility in educational settings for students with hearing loss

accessibility in educational settings
Accessibility is something that people with hearing loss must think about everywhere they go. This is certainly the case with educational settings and institutions. Accessibility and accommodation needs for the deaf and hard of hearing are especially important in schools and educational institutes.

Importance of Accessibility in Educational Settings

There are a wide variety of factors that go into making educational settings accessible for students with hearing loss. Some of these factors include:

  • Position of teacher/presenter
  • Seating arrangements
  • Distance from speaker
  • Acoustics and background noise
  • Access to visual aids
  • Technology accessibility (captioning, microphones, recording devices)
  • Interpreting services
  • Notetaking

Understanding these factors are essential for teachers, disability coordinators, students, and frankly anyone in an educational setting. Having an awareness of the needs of students is necessary in order to be able to best provide equal access and opportunities for people with hearing loss to be engaged in the classroom.

“The majority of interactions in school occur verbally, and a great deal of information is presented to children through sound and spoken words,” according to Phonak. “For this reason, hearing loss can be a challenge to a child’s participation, understanding, learning and growth in academic environments.”

Read more: Hearing aids for kids in the classroom

Accommodations and Needs

Just like no two environments are the same, no two individuals are the same in terms of their needs. We all have different technology and communication preferences. Things that work well for us might not for others.

For instance, one student might prefer to have a sign language interpreter, while another might choose to use CART captioning. Some common accommodations in the classroom include:

Note-taking Assistance

It’s often difficult to listen, process, and take notes simultaneously. Therefore, notetakers can help tremendously fill in the gaps on what we might miss in our own notes. Some students even like sharing their notes or starting a Google Doc for dynamic note-taking.

Smartpens (a pen that records as you take notes) is an example of one tool that can be used for note-taking assistance. It may also be helpful for some to have advanced notes when available to help prepare. This can help our brains process the information that will be delivered. I’ve used a Livescribe smartpen all throughout my undergraduate studies. However, once I got to graduate school, I started using a system called NoteTakingExpress, which I found to be most helpful for me! Both of these are common services available in college disability offices.

Captions or Transcription for Video/Audio

Whenever video or audio material is presented, having captions or a transcript is a must.

CART Captioning

A real-time captioning service in which a trained captioner types everything that’s said on screen. This service can also be done remotely.

Read more: My experience with CART at university 

Extended Time

Some individuals may need extended time on tasks like tests or other assignments, especially if it comes to verbal instruction. Our brains can take a bit longer to process the sound and/or what’s being asked of us. This is true even for written material.

Hearing Assistive Devices

Some common forms include a personal microphone or FM system that plus directly into one’s hearing device.


Sign language interpreters are often needed for people who rely on ASL. Others may prefer it as a backup. Oral interpreters are an option for people who read lips.

Reduced Distraction Accommodations

When it comes to group work or test taking, it can help to take tests or work with a group in a distraction-reduced environment outside of the designated classroom. This means an environment with little to no background noise, etc. Any type of noise when trying to focus and/or talk with a small group of people can be incredibly difficult, as we’re not able to tune things out as easily as hearing people.

Seating Arrangements

Often, it helps students to be seated closer to the speaker and/or the board. Having chairs in a U or L shape can also make it easier to follow discussion.

Read more: What I wish I had known about university accessibility as a student with hearing loss

Personal Experience with Accessibility in Educational Settings

Throughout grade school, middle school, and high school, I’ve always had an IEP (Individualized Education Program) that consisted of many of the above accommodations.

When I got to college, I utilized disability services to ensure that I’d have similar accommodations and access. In my undergraduate college years, I had access to note-taking assistance, captions on all video/audio content, a FM system, extended time on tests, reduced distraction environments for testing/groups, and always sat where I was able to hear the speaker and see the board clearly. These things worked exceptionally well all throughout my undergrad. However, when COVID struck, some things shifted. For instance, I needed captions on any Zoom meetings/classes. I also requested that professors use clear masking solutions when masks were required in person.

Read more: My transition to college as a deaf student

Graduate School

When I started my doctorate program last year, my accessibility needs in an educational setting changed. I started out at a large school where there were 40 people in my classes  – the largest size I’ve experienced. Many of the classrooms were set up in an auditorium-style fashion with tiered seats. They were also quite a distance from the speaker, even if I was in the front row. The first day I realized something needed to change because I could hardly hear anything. The listening fatigue was all too real.

I requested CART, a service that was completely new to me. I discovered how immensely helpful it is. Now, no matter how small the class or the setup, I still use a captioner. It’s a huge relief to be able to not strain so much to hear, and have a backup for what I occasionally miss.

Changing Things Up

Unfortunately, the school where I first began my doctorate studies ended up not being able to provide the accommodations I needed to succeed. I transferred to a new school and program. Although I haven’t officially started there yet, I’ve been blown away by the accessibility. When I visited campus recently, I was excited to find out that my classes will be held in a conference room with seats around a circular table facing each other. I’ve already been surrounded by people who haven’t been afraid to ask what I need. It’s a breath of fresh air after having minimal access for the past year. While that wasn’t the only reason for my decision to transfer, as I also wanted to go after a certain specialization, I learned that it’s ok to advocate for my needs and change things up if necessary.

Advice for Professionals

No matter what your role, everyone can gain from understanding accessibility in education. If you’re hearing and work in an educational setting, never be afraid to ask deaf and hard of hearing individuals what they need. It shows a willingness to adapt, be accessible, and makes these transitions a lot easier for us! If you’re a deaf or hard of hearing person, don’t be afraid to speak up, seek out the disability office at your school for support, and let others know how they can best help!

If you’re not sure where to turn for access, you’re not alone! My amazing audiologist has been one of the biggest guiding forces throughout my entire college experience. If you have an audiologist, express your concerns with them. They know your specific hearing loss and will likely be able to guide you through the different types of accommodations that can help.

Deaf and hard of hearing individuals are more than capable of thriving in educational settings. There’s nothing we cannot do, as long as we have equal opportunities to do so!

Read more: Hearing loss in the classroom: Your rights as a student

Author Details
Hi, my name is Danielle! I’m an Psy.D. graduate psychology student with an immense passion for writing and helping and inspiring others in any way I can. I am an anti-bullying and mental health advocate, blogger, and public speaker through my personal blog and social media campaign, “Compassionately Inspired”. I was born with a severe conductive hearing loss and hope to inspire others both in the hard of hearing and deaf community as well as the hearing community. “Everybody has a story”; that’s my motto and I hope my stories inspire you in one way or another.