It’s that time of year again! Back to school is here, but this year looks quite different for many. This is especially true for deaf students.
Everyone is facing major adjustments as they transition back to in-person learning, but for students with hearing loss, the transition can be especially challenging. With the proper set-up, planing and accommodations, however, going back-to-school with hearing loss can be made a little easier.
Barriers in Education Pre-Pandemic for Deaf Students
In general, educational settings have always been challenging for many deaf students, way before the pandemic. It’s important to first acknowledge some of them.
Classroom Set Ups: This may seem like something that wouldn’t hold much weight. But room set up can make or break a situation when it comes to deaf and hard of hearing individuals. If the speaker’s back is turned away from the students or students are not facing one another, it can be difficult to follow who is talking and what is going on. We rely heavily on visual cues, facial expressions, lipreading etc. Some room set ups don’t accommodate that.
Video/Audio Content: Some video and audio content used in class lectures may not have captions. This is critical for a vast majority of deaf students. Without it, we often miss a lot of content due to not being able to hear the audio/video.
Note Taking: Note taking is another barrier for those with hearing loss. Listening, paying attention, and writing notes simultaneously pose great challenges for various reasons. Listening or watching an interpreter, reading captions, etc. take up a lot of energy and focus. This makes it incredibly difficult to multitask. When we’re listening or trying to pay attention in and of itself, that task takes up pretty much all of our focus. We have to exert more concentration to do so in order to make sure we’re hearing everything. When you add note taking, we often don’t hear or process what you’re saying as fully. By the time we’ve jotted down one sentence, the speaker has likely already spoken 10 pages worth.
Background Noise/Distractions: People talking, peers whispering, chairs screeching, doors and lockers slamming, high heels clacking… all these things are often echoed in those who use hearing assistive technology. When even just one of these examples is present, it can be immensely difficult to “tune out.” This leaves the student to feel lost or completely disconnected from the teacher/speaker.
Listening Fatigue: Listening for those of us with hearing loss can sometimes be anything but natural and actually quite exhausting. For those who use hearing assistive technology, this is even more true. Hearing aids, for example, amplify sound but don’t necessarily make sound clearer in many cases. Therefore, we must exert more energy ensuring that we are gathering and processing all of the sound correctly. Additionally, there is a delay at the rate in which the sound is heard and processed. This is because the sound isn’t going straight to our ears. It’s going through multiple channels before it even gets there. These factors contribute greatly to listening fatigue and burnout. We must compensate all day for these delays and exert a significant amount of energy and concentration into the task of listening.
Sensory Overload: Sensory overload in an educational environment can be more prominent than you think. This is even more true in cases of big schools or college campuses. When you add in all of the background noise and distractions mentioned earlier, along with large crowds, high tech technology, echoing of multiple voices, and all of the above, it’s easy to feel an immense sense of sensory overload. Living in a hearing world can sometimes feel incredibly overwhelming.
Now, in addition to all of the above, add in masks and social distancing. If you’ve been following us over the past year, it’s likely no surprise that these factors have had a huge impact on those of us with hearing loss. What happens when we add all of this into an educational setting?
Listening fatigue and sensory overload increase tenfold, and communication becomes even more hindered. We are forced to exert even more of that increased energy and concentration than we had to before
What many of us used as a backup (i.e. lipreading) is now taken away. Just as the rest of the world is forced to adjust and readjust to this “new normal,” the deaf community is also faced with adjusting to our “new normal.”
“Just as the rest of the world is forced to adjust and readjust to this ‘new normal,’ the deaf community is also faced with adjusting to our “new normal.”
Accommodations that may have been in place previously may need to be changed or adapted to meet new requirements. This has been the case for me. I began my doctorate program last week. For years, I’ve had a certain set of accommodations, such as note taking assistance, extended time on tests, permission to record lectures, closed captioning, use of personal FM system, etc. This year, I had to add the request for professors to use clear masks and add live transcription on any Zoom meetings. When I got to my first class, it wasn’t even five minutes before I had to reevaluate. I realized I needed live captioning. It was impossible to hear or tell who was talking out of the 40 students who were wearing regular masks.
How can you navigate these barriers throughout this trial-and-error process whether a teacher or student? Luckily, there are things that can be done to help mitigate these barriers.
Advocate, Advocate, Advocate: In these ever-changing and quite frankly, life-changing circumstances, it’s crucial to advocate for what we need. Everyone deserves equal access to communication, education, and accessibility! So let people know how to provide that.
Accommodations: In educational settings especially, there are always accommodations that can be made to ensure equal access to education. Teachers and disability coordinators can be immensely helpful at helping determine which accommodations may be right for you. Accommodation needs are different for everyone as everyone with hearing loss is different. So, be sure to communicate your need for accommodations. See what is out there that might be beneficial to you.
Consider Technology: Hearing technology for the classroom, such as the Phonak Roger technology can help students hear in noisy settings. A new study also found with the current widespread use of face masks, Roger remains a viable hearing solution for overcoming negative effects of background noise and distance. Consider using Roger for Education, as there is a solution for every situation.
Clear Masks are Life-Changing: I never quite realized the impact of clear masks until the second day of my first in-person class in over a year. When masks came about over a year ago, I became even more lost in this hearing world. My communication method of lipreading was no longer so readily available. However, all of my classes were online up until now. Therefore, there were no masks. On my first day of in-person graduate classes, nobody had clear masks. The second day people used clear masks. I cannot over emphasize the world of difference it made! I could not only lipread, but see facial expressions again. The sound quality was actually greater through the clear masks compared to other masks.
Caption Everything: If you’re a teacher or educator, one of the most helpful things you can do is to caption all video and audio content. This will allow deaf and hard of hearing students to fully understand audio/video content that might be presented in classroom settings.
Evaluate the Environment: One of the things that I have done ever since I’ve been in grade school is evaluate my environment ahead of time whenever possible. This allows me to have a sense of where I need to sit to best be able to hear the teacher or lecture. If you’re a teacher or educator, one thing that is immensely helpful is having desks/chairs arranged to all face one another. It is incredibly difficult to hear voices from behind. Having everyone face each other makes it much easier to pick up on facial expressions, body language, etc. and have sound directed toward each other.
Minimize Background Noise When Possible: Here is another thing that I discovered early on. Background noise can significantly hinder listening ability in a myriad of ways. When someone has hearing loss, it’s difficult to hear more than one thing at once. When there is a lot of background noise while the teacher is teaching, it will make it difficult to hear the teacher above that noise. Additionally, for those who use hearing assistive technology, background noise has a tendency to be amplified above and beyond the speaker’s voice. This leads to the background noise overpowering the speaker. Simple things that can be really useful are shutting the door when teaching to minimize the noise from the hallway, putting tennis balls on chairs to stop the screeching every time a chair comes out from under the desk, etc.
Use Visuals Especially for Complex Concepts: Visual aids such as pictures, graphs, Power Points, etc. are useful because it gives us something to look at and can help us fill in the gaps that might be missed.
These are only a few of the tips that can be useful for both students and teachers in an educational setting. There are always ways to create a more accessible and inclusive environment for all. There’s no doubt this upcoming school year will pose a wide variety of challenges that we may never have had to think about. Take it slow, be flexible with those around you, ask people what they might need, be patient, and continue to be an advocate for yourself and others.
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.
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