12 Ways to Make Classrooms Accessible for Deaf & Hard-of-Hearing Students

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Now that the COVID-19 vaccines are spreading throughout the US, many schools are starting to plan to head back into the physical classroom.

Many are excited for the return to “normalcy,” but for some students, in-person classroom attendance means additional barriers to communications, especially for students who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing. How can we support these students with special needs?

Image Description: Teacher is wearing a mask and holding a book out to a student who is seated and wearing a mask. Other students are sitting at their desks nearby with masks on and looking towards the teacher.

Whether you’re a teacher, accessibility manager, or even a concerned parent, if you are supporting Deaf or hard-of-hearing students, this is for you!

How to Accommodate Deaf Students in the Classroom

We sat down with Grace, who works in education as an Assistive Technology Specialist. In her role, she is responsible for making sure that classrooms are accessible for students with access needs. We asked her to share her best practices for communication access in the classroom. Here’s what she said:

1. Ensure comfortable lighting

Image Description: Teacher is facing the classroom holding up a light bulb. There are four students sitting behind white desks looking towards the teacher attentively. In the background, there are book shelves and plants.

Lighting that is too dark makes it hard to see and lighting that is too bright (like harsh florescent lighting) can be taxing on the eyes. Comfortably lit areas with natural light are best. (Also, make sure whoever is speaking doesn’t have shadows on their face or glare coming from behind them.)

2. Reduce visual noise

Students who are Deaf and hard-of-hearing folx often use their eyes to listen. Just as background noise can make it hard to hear what someone is saying, visual busyness (patterns, clutter, flashing or moving graphics, etc.) can make it hard for someone to visually focus on signs, lipreading, or facial expressions. Wearing shirts without patterns and keeping the classroom uncluttered help.

3. Sit people in a semi-circle arrangement where everyone can see everything

Image Description: In a classroom, children are sitting at their desks, which are arranged in a semi-circle. All students can see each other and are chatting with one another.

Since Deaf and hard-of-hearing students often listen with their eyes, it’s important to arrange all participants so that everyone can see everyone at the same time. Generally, creating a semi-circle or circular seating arrangement allows for this.

4. Only address people from in front and when you have their attention

Image Description: In the foreground, a man and woman are talking face-to-face in front of a table and chairs. They have strong eye contact and the man is using his hands to describe something. In the background, a man is standing while on his phone. Two other people have their backs turned to adjust some post-its on a corkboard.

If the conversation happens from behind or to the side, a Deaf or hard-of-hearing student might not catch what is said because they might not be able to hear well in that direction. Getting a student’s attention before you communicate with them — and making sure you are in front of them in clear view — maximizes their ability to understand what you are saying.

5. Use visual supports to explain concepts

Because Deaf and hard-of-hearing students largely engage with the world visually, using visual supports such as pictures, graphs, models, and gestures help enhance comprehension.

6. Provide notes and resources

Deaf and hard-of-hearing students generally use their eyes to listen, so it’s hard to look down and take notes without missing what someone is saying in the front of the room.

Providing silent mini-breaks in the lecture for students to write notes, providing notes beforehand, and providing a transcript afterward are all ways to let students both listen to the full lecture and take notes.

Ava provides the option to save transcripts after a captioning session. Learn more about using Ava for live captions and notes!

7. Address the student, not the interpreter

Sometimes students will use interpreters in educational settings. Remember that the interpreter is merely providing a voice but the student is the actual person talking. Looking and talking directly at the student when communicating and addressing them shows respect.

8. Use the student’s preferred means of communication

Every Deaf and hard-of-hearing student is unique. Ask them what their preferred method of communication is and follow that path. As a teacher, you have the unique opportunity to advocate for your students. If the school doesn’t provide any accommodations for their communication style, you have the power to make that happen.

Ava provides advocacy services to assist teachers and accessibility specialists who are trying to support their students. Contact our Advocacy Team for more information.

9. Design your class with Universal Design for Learning concepts and provide multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement

The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) philosophy proposes that education and the classroom experience should be as accessible as possible for everyone — students of different language and cultural backgrounds, introverts, extroverts, students with disabilities, older students, and everyone in between.

Following UDL principles will help you create a classroom that works for everyone, including Deaf and hard-of-hearing students. In particular, the UDL tenets of providing options for perception and options for expression and communication will allow Deaf and hard-of-hearing students to work from their strengths and get the most out of the classroom experience.

10. Create a classroom culture of respect

It’s hard to learn if you don’t feel safe. Safety starts by creating a classroom culture that respects and values all students, including Deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Practicing Deaf etiquette and discussing accommodations in a friendly, professional, and confidential way are great steps in the right direction.

11. Keep open lines of communication with the student

It’s important to keep an open line of communication with your student so that you both can check in with each other to see how the strategies you are using are going.

12. Ensure that students are included

A lot of the learning that happens in school is incidental learning that happens outside of the lecture itself. Often Deaf and hard-of-hearing students miss opportunities for incidental learning because they cannot participate in the talk that happens before and after classes.

Make sure students are aware of important announcements and events. Encourage a school culture of inclusion by providing tools and resources for peers to communicate more easily.

As we re-enter the classroom, it’s so important that we take extra efforts to accommodate our Deaf and hard-of-hearing students so that they get the same access as everyone else. How do you practice accessibility and inclusion for your students? Share with us in the comments below!

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