How to Be an Advocate for Deaf Education

Over 7 million students between the ages of 3 and 21 with special learning needs in the U.S. experience accessibility challenges throughout their academic journey. While the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) serves students with disabilities, without proper advocacy, barriers remain and educational attainment is prohibited. When accessibility is out of reach in general education settings, it adversely affects how a student learns and performs in and out of school.

Picture of a young female signing with a quote that reads "With awareness and assistive technology, designing classrooms where Deaf and hearing students can learn as equal partners together is necessary and absolutely attainable."

Image Source: Ava

Deaf education requires awareness, advocacy for accessibility and a student teaching experience that encourages higher learning. Education professionals hold the responsibility to access financial aid available and advocate for students of any disability to ensure they have the tools needed for equal learning opportunities. Assistive technology like speech-to-text transcription enhances communication, improves access and supports autonomy for Deaf education.

Deaf Inaccessibility in Education

Inaccessibility in Deaf education has been a long standing issue that has limited the educational opportunities of countless individuals who are Deaf or live with hearing loss. Early intervention and access to tools and programs that prepare students at a young age for academic success is essential in every school.

Some of the most common challenges faced by Deaf students in the education system include:

  • Lack of awareness: Many educators have limited knowledge about the needs and experiences of Deaf students, including how to communicate effectively with them and how to accommodate unique learning styles.

For students who are Deaf, lack of awareness surrounding learner diversity can lead to feelings of frustration, isolation, or that they are being ignored or misunderstood. As with hearing students, what works for one Deaf student may not work for another.

  • Insufficient resources: Deaf or hard-of-hearing students may have limited access to educational materials since many textbooks, online resources, and other educational materials are not designed with accessibility in mind. Human resources or faculty to help assist with accessing financial aid for such resources is indispensable.

Videos may not have captions, or essential assistive technology (such as VRI, computer-assisted note-taking tools, ASL videos, interpreters, etc.) may not be provided, making it difficult for those with hearing loss to follow along and comprehend information at the same rate as hearing people.

  • Communication barriers: When Deaf or hard-of-hearing students are unable to understand what the teacher or their peers are saying, the learning experience is obviously compromised as participation is reduced. Subsequently, for students whose first or second language isn’t English, not having appropriate interpretation services available in the student’s primary language can further limit communication opportunities and class participation.

Some Deaf children are taught to lip-read, but for those who were not, other modes of communication are essential. Teaching materials that do not offer visual aids that include transcripts or captions also make content inaccessible, which can result in academic setbacks and decreased levels of engagement.

  • Discrimination: Because Deaf students have accessibility needs and specific communication requirements, they often face marginalization and discrimination from educators and peers. Raising awareness that Deaf and hard-of-hearing students are diverse individuals who bring unique and valuable insight and contributions into the classroom is imperative. Deaf studies incorporated into the curriculum inform hearing people who may stigmatize Deafness and see it merely as a disability. No student should feel shame or inadequacy for special needs.
Purple and blue background with text overlay that reads "84% of teachers say it's impossible to achieve equity in education without accessible learning tools."

Source: Ave & Global Interpreting Services

  • Experiential Deficits: Compared to their hearing peers, Deaf students without the proper tools can lag behind in literacy skills, reading comprehension, and overall academic achievement. While hearing students can often absorb new information primarily through verbal conversation, Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals may require additional exposure. Although teachers who fail to recognize this academic gap may do so unintentionally, it leads to educational inequality, a lack of inclusivity, and impedes a student’s academic progress.
  • Curriculum and instruction oversights: For all students — Deaf or hearing — learning should be designed to effectively foster optimal development and full potential. Instructional spaces and classrooms that are not arranged to address inclusion and comfort can disrupt student engagement and class participation.

Poor lighting can make it challenging for Deaf and hard-of-hearing students to clearly see the teacher or an interpreter. Preferential seating may also get overlooked, hindering a student’s ability to hear or understand instruction. Teachers may not realize how visual noise such as patterns, clutter, flashing or moving graphics can be distracting for a student with hearing loss.

Image with blue background and text that reads Americans with disabilities act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities including deaf and hard-of-hearing people. Applies to any business or organization that operates a place of public accommodation.

Source: National Deaf Children's Society

How To Advocate

Despite the challenges that Deaf students face, there are several strategies that educational institutions can employ to promote Deaf accessibility.

Understand Deaf Culture and the Deaf Community

The Deaf community is a linguistic and cultural minority group with its own unique language, customs, and traditions. With American Sign Language (ASL) being the primary language used by many Deaf individuals, it’s important for educators to learn sign language when possible, or ASL signs at minimum to make communication easier.

Create an Inclusive Learning Environment

Creating an inclusive learning environment gives Deaf students equal access to quality education. Make accommodations that support Deaf students' communication needs, such as providing interpreters, captioning, or other visual aids. Fostering a culture of respect and understanding in the classroom reduces discrimination and furthers inclusion. A healthy, welcoming environment among students can help with the mental health of all students.

Training teachers to learn sign language or teaching hearing students signed language can nurture social interaction with Deaf students. Most Deaf children and the vast majority of young people in general thrive when they are able to interact with their peers in academic or social settings. Body language is important when communicating, especially with Deaf children who use visual language to express emotion.

Image of young female student wearing a hearing aid and a teacher sitting next to her in a classroom setting.

Source: National Deaf Children's Society

Evaluate Accessibility Tools

Providing accommodations for students with disabilities can be a resource-intensive task, requiring extra time and budget from educators and administrators. Strategies like giving students more time to take assessments can be costly, making it difficult to implement long-term accessibility solutions without the assistance of technology.

Fortunately, with financial aid and advanced software, schools can easily meet the accommodations and requirements outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with any budget. Advocates can attend programs to test learning tools designed to improve student access to curriculum material. For example, Ava's speech-to-text technology allows students to catch every word of instruction and benefit from a completely accessible classroom experience. Fast and accurate captions give students the ability to engage and participate in classroom discussion.

Advocate for Policy Change

Educators can work with school administrators and policymakers to develop policies that promote inclusivity and equal access to education for Deaf students. Be it ASL interpreters, the provision of captioning services, or the development of curriculum materials that are accessible to Deaf students, educators can help reform the current education system.

Being familiar with federal and state laws, regulations, and guidelines related to education, accessibility, and disability rights is a necessary place to start. Identify gaps or areas where policies may not adequately address the needs of Deaf students (related to funding, resources, accommodations, etc), and speak up to correct issues and achieve the educational outcome desired.

Form partnerships with advocacy organizations, participate in public meetings and hearings, and engage with policymakers and lawmakers. Alternatively, work with other advocates to develop legislative proposals or engage with policymakers and agencies to institute change to existing policies.

Work with the Deaf Community

Communicating regularly with Deaf parents, hearing parents and other support staff is crucial to understanding a student's needs and creating an environment that is conducive to their learning. Parents can provide insights about their Deaf child's communication preferences, which can help with developing strategies that support academic success and autonomy.

Engaging with the Deaf and signing community, including Deaf parents and other Deaf children to learn about their experiences and perspectives on education is essential. A nuanced understanding of the challenges faced within the Deaf community will help educators resolve the barriers in an effective manner.

Source: TEDX & YouTube

Attend Training and Professional Development

Training and professional development can provide educational professionals with the necessary knowledge and skills to understand and support Deaf students' cultural and linguistic identities. To become an effective advocate for students, learn about specialized communication strategies, aim to create an inclusive learning environment, and ensure students are given appropriate accommodations. Acquire a solid understanding of the laws and policies that protect Deaf students’ rights, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Inclusive Teaching Yields Higher Learning

For the varying identities and abilities of students, it is both an ethical and moral imperative for educators to create an atmosphere of empathy, understanding, and respect within the classroom. Including visual aids such as signed language, or written language like captions, rather than the traditional oral method, Deaf students are provided equal opportunity for educational attainment.

Work To Create Lasting Change

As school districts and education professionals strive for more inclusive approaches, hearing schools and mainstream academic institutions still lack the accessibility that Deaf schools provide. Whether an educator, a Deaf parent, Deaf student, hearing parent or hearing student, advocating on behalf of Deaf and hard-of-hearing students can help push accessibility initiatives forward.

Creating inclusive education spaces for all learners can become a reality when school districts promote the need for communication accessibility, equality, and cultural awareness for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Together, we can create lasting change by ensuring all students — Deaf or not — have access to the tools available and the education deserved.