School is back in session. While this year ushered in a return to in-classroom learning, hybrid or remote school is still the reality for some students. Whether students are beginning a new semester of remote learning in college or just entering middle school, heading back to the classroom can be intimidating – especially for those students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

We had the opportunity to chat with Meg Duarte, M.Ed. about some of the accessibility challenges educators should be aware of working with students who are deaf or hard of hearing – especially in a pandemic environment with remote learning and masks. Meg is a teacher who is hard of hearing herself and has had the opportunity to teach students in both environments over the course of her career, and more recently, the pandemic.

As both an educator, and a member of the hard of hearing community, Meg was able to talk with us about some of the challenges faced by students who require accessible learning and some of her own experiences. In this Q&A, Meg also shares some best practices for educators who want to ensure they are providing an accessible supportive environment for their students who are deaf and hard of hearing.

What are some accessibility challenges students who are deaf and hard of hearing face generally, whether the learning environment is in-person or virtual?

I want to start out by saying that each student’s accessibility needs are different, and while our discussion today touches on best practices and general challenges that may be faced, it is incredibly important to connect with your student one-on-one to find out what their exact needs are and how you can best support them.

Over my career as an educator, and even my own experiences as a student, I have seen many situations arise which create accessibility challenges in the classroom. Some of the more common occurrences include:

  • Teachers using audio visual educational aids which are not closed captioned.
  • Conducting a lesson when there is background noise or overlapping speakers.
  • Not using microphones or the assistive listening device (ALD) provided by the student which go along with accessible technology (i.e. “I have a loud voice so I do not need to use the mic.”)
  • Expecting a student to watch an interpreter or read captions and be simultaneously responsible for taking their own notes.
  • Teachers not speaking clearly, having obstructed faces, or lecturing with their back to the students.
  • In science environments specifically, since I was a science teacher, not setting up the lab tables in a way that allowed students to easily see the instructor who can also see what they are doing.

What are some ways that teachers can ensure their in-person classrooms are an accessible learning environment when there are students who are hearing and deaf or hard of hearing?

Any rules you have in the classroom to ensure an accessible learning experience should apply to everyone – this is especially important in classrooms which have students who are hearing, learning with students who are deaf or hard of hearing. For example, students should have to talk only one at a time when interacting with the deaf or hard of hearing student. The reason it is important to enforce the rules for accessible communication, regardless of who is asking the question or interacting, is because (1) it is easier for students to form the habit when there are no exceptions, and (2) it takes the spotlight off the student who is deaf or hard of hearing. I have seen a lot of well-intentioned individuals stop overlapping speakers by saying “Hey, one at a time or [INDIVIDUAL WHO IS DEAF] cannot follow along!” While some students may feel okay with that, others may feel uncomfortable or like the teacher is calling attention to them. Instead, the individual should say “One at a time please.”

Some things you can do to ensure your classroom is an accessible learning environment are:

  • Make sure the classroom is a quiet environment, don’t play background music or allow students to carry on side conversations while you are teaching. If students are allowed to eat during class, make sure they know to remove any noisy packaging from their food before the class starts.
  • Have a one speaker at a time rule to ensure that everyone in the classroom is able to follow along with the interactions.
  • Sometimes there are things beyond our control in the classroom, like noisy air conditioning units, or a thin wall where you can hear another educator speaking very loudly – do the best you can to ensure your students who are hard of hearing are assigned a seat in the quieter section of the room.
  • Set-up the desks in a “U-Shape” around the perimeter of the room so everyone can see one another. In addition to making the space more accessible, it helps everyone engage better regardless of whether a student is hearing or not.
  • Make sure there is good lighting when you are addressing the class and face the students. Avoid making comments in the dark during a film or while presenting slides. When you speak in the dark, the students cannot see your face and it’s very likely the students who are deaf or hard of hearing will miss what you said. Additionally, do not stand with sunlight behind you because the students will not be able to see your face.

What are some ways that teachers can ensure their virtual classrooms are an accessible learning environment when there are students who are hearing and deaf or hard of hearing?

In some ways, being in a virtual environment can make it easier to have an accessible classroom because it is more in teachers’ control – although it comes with its own challenges. Here are some best practices for accessible virtual classrooms (and video calls generally):

  • Ask all students to keep their microphones off unless they are speaking. As we all know by now, background noise on video calls is distracting. What you may not know is that if a student is using automated captioning on the platform, background noise and overlapping speakers can cause the captions to freeze.
  • Keep your camera on if you are speaking and make sure you are well lit, lighting should come from behind where your camera is, not behind your head. By making sure you have good lighting, the students will be able to see your face and lip read you if that is something they depend on.
  • Make sure the educator’s video is presented in an appropriate size next to the presentation materials. I have seen instances when the educator’s face was a small box approximately a square inch — if that big — when the material was being presented. Additionally, the student needs the ability to pin the interpreter to the screen while preserving the presentation. Familiarizing yourself with your platform’s accessibility and pinning features beforehand will be incredibly helpful.
  • If your students are using captions or an interpreter, if the captions are not going or if the interpreter needs to switch out, you should stop speaking until they are back on and ready.
  • Ensure the audio quality is good – not just good enough. If hearing students need time to think about what they are hearing, those who are hard of hearing will struggle even more. I recommend using an external microphone if you have one. The audio quality from an external microphone is much clearer than built-in mics.
  • Be cognizant of using breakout rooms – if an interpreter or captioner is not assigned to the breakout room where the student is, they may not have accessibility.

How should a new educator engage with a student who requires an interpreter?

When communicating with anyone by means of an interpreter, you speak directly to the individual who requires the interpreter – not to the interpreter.

Here are two examples to clarify how you engage with a student using an interpreter. In the following examples, Teacher A is talking to their student Timmy who uses an interpreter:

Correct:

 TEACHER A: [Looking at Timmy] Good morning, Timmy! How are you doing this morning?
INTERPRETER: [Signs to Timmy what Teacher A is saying]
TIMMY: I’m good! A little tired though!

Incorrect:

 TEACHER A:  

[Looking at Interpreter] Good morning, can you ask Timmy how he is doing?

 

INTERPRETER: [Signs to Timmy what Teacher A is saying]

How should the educator engage with the interpreter?

Educators should treat the interpreter as a colleague who is solely there to facilitate communication between the educator, the classmates, and the student who is deaf or hard of hearing. The interpreter is not an assistant, classroom monitor or disciplinarian.

With that being said, in my experience, I have found that interpreters can be a wonderful resource for how the teacher can make it easier for the student who is deaf or hard of hearing to be more included in the classroom activities. I welcome feedback from interpreters because sometimes they see stuff you do not since they are focused on the one student, while you are focused on the whole class.

If you could give teachers one piece of advice regarding creating an inclusive and accessible classroom, what would it be?

Talk to each one of your students who is deaf or hard of hearing to learn what their individual accessibility needs are, and then be open to feedback from them as those needs may change. As I said in my response to our first question, each student’s accessibility needs are different. What works for one student may not work for another. By asking your students to share what an inclusive and accessible classroom looks like to them, and then incorporating as many of their suggestions as possible, you are showing them their learning experience matters to you.

I always encourage my students to advocate for their accessibility needs – whether it is communicating to me they missed something or letting me know the captions aren’t working. By creating an accessible learning environment and encouraging your students to advocate for themselves you are not only making sure the classroom is accessible to them, but you are helping them develop skills, which will help have what they need to be successful as they grow.

Many people are amazed when I share that as a student, I have had educators who were not interested in providing accessibility to me. I had a music teacher, for a required course, who wanted to fail me for not being able to identify music notes in an auditory test. I have had teachers who had a strong accent which made it difficult for me to decode what was being said, who refused to modify their teaching style (walking/pacing around the room, talking with back to the class, or head bowed as lesson was being read from the podium at ground level), and would not change seat assignments for two students: hearing student and me in a class of 150 students in an auditorium (it’s difficult to read lips of a professor in half lit auditorium in the “O” row when rows “A to “C” would be much easier). These are just some examples I had to cope with. As someone who was once a hard of hearing student, I can tell you how POWERFUL it is to have educators who encourage you and do what they can to provide accessible classrooms.

It requires collaboration and flexibility between the student who is deaf or hard of hearing and the instructor to find the best access to the learning process in the classroom, whether it be in person or online.  One size or way will not fit all. There will be unexpected surprises, which will need to be dealt with. Humor, grace, creativity and patience are required for this process to work.

I hope this Q&A has been helpful and empowers you to have conversations with your students who are deaf and hard of hearing.

 

 ACCESSIBLE EDUCATOR QUICK TIPS
 Best Practice In-Person  Virtual
GOOD LIGHTING The classroom needs to have good lighting to enable the student to not only see the instructors face, but also other students if it is an interactive lesson. In a virtual setting, the instructor should make sure they are not backlit. The lighting should be coming from behind the camera, or in front of the instructor, so the instructors face is clear and well lit.
QUIET ENVIRONMENT In the classroom where there are assigned seats, be sure to seat your hard of hearing students as far away as possible from anything which makes noise during the lesson – even something like a noisy heater or air conditioning unit can make it difficult for the student to hear you and engage with the lesson. In a virtual setting, best practice is to have all students mute their microphones when they are not talking. Many times, students will have background noise which they don’t realize is bleeding into the lesson.
ONE SPEAKER AT A TIME Sometimes students get excited and speak over one another, it is important to enforce a one speaker at a time rule. Not only is it hard for someone who is deaf or hard of hearing to follow along with overlapping speakers, but if there is a captioner or interpreter, they are unable to communicate what more than one speaker is saying. In a virtual environment, if you are already asking students to remain muted unless they are speaking, it can be easier to enforce the one speaker at a time rule. Students can use “hand raising” features in video platforms to let the instructor know they would like to speak.
PROVIDING NOTES Whether in a virtual environment or in-person, it is a challenge to lip-read, read captions, or watch an interpreter and take notes at the same time. Educators should be sure there is either a student who is taking notes to share, or they should make their own notes available online to their deaf and hard of hearing students. This enables the student to fully pay attention to the accessible lecture and have notes to study from afterwards like their hearing peers.