Approximately one in ten individuals has a significant hearing loss. Within this population, most individuals have some level of hearing impairment and only a small proportion of the group is Deaf. Types of hearing loss include sensorineural (nerve-related), conductive (affecting the outer or middle ear) or a mixed hearing loss (mixture of both types.) People with profound hearing loss often prefer to be referred to as Deaf rather than hearing impaired. They see this as a positive identity rather than a negative label.
The impact of hearing loss depends on the type of disorder, extent and timing of the loss. Some students may have lost hearing over a period of time, for example as a result of ageing or of hereditary conditions. Others may have suffered permanent hearing loss as a result of workplace noise. Students with a hearing impairment may experience difficulty with certain sound frequencies, and may have difficulty when there is significant background noise. Some students may have the condition tinnitus, a high-pitched ringing noise in the ear. Some will have had their hearing enhanced, though not entirely restored, with cochlea implants or hearing devices.
Other students may be deaf: prelingually deaf, or deaf as the result of illness in childhood. Deaf students may lip-read, use sign language, or a combination of these. A student who uses Auslan as a first language of communication may have difficulty with the grammatical and syntactical structure of English and may have a limited vocabulary. Some deaf students may also speak differently.
Students with hearing impairments may require accommodations and assistive devices to have best access to education. Accommodations may be as simple as preferential seating or as complex as wireless assistive listening devices in the classroom. Each learner's needs must be evaluated, and accommodations should be provided to enhance the learning environment for that hearing impaired student.
Impact of Hearing Impairment
The learning processes of students with hearing impairment may be affected in the following ways:
- Students who have been deafened in early childhood are very different to students who have lost hearing later in life in terms of educational disadvantage. For example, their range of vocabulary may be limited which in turn may affect their reading ability.
- Deaf and hearing impaired students tend to be visual learners – and this is difficult in an environment where much essential information is delivered exclusively by word of mouth.
- Hearing impaired students may need to use assistive technology such as FM systems to participate in class.
- The impact of hearing impairment is clear in respect of time. Students who need information transcribed from tape must sometimes wait for a significant period of time for this to happen. This means that they may fall behind other students in the class, and confidence and self-esteem may suffer as a result.
- Students with hearing impairment may appear isolated in the learning environment. The possibility for social contacts and for interaction with other students is often limited, and this isolation or separateness may have an impact on learning.
- Participation and interaction in tutorials may be limited. Students who cannot hear the flow and nuances of rapid verbal exchange will be at a disadvantage.
- Students with disabilities frequently carry emotional ‘baggage’ as a result of past learning failures and other 'put-downs', and this can have a long-term effect on confidence, self-esteem, and on their approach to learning.
- Students with hearing impairment coming straight from the school system will have been used to a structured, controlled, supportive environment, and may feel uncomfortable taking some of the learning risks associated with the relatively unstructured and unsupportive environment of university.
- Anxiety about performing in front of others may affect participation in tutorials, particularly for students who have an associated speech impairment.
There is a range of inclusive teaching strategies that can assist all students to learn but there are some specific strategies that are useful in teaching a group which includes students with hearing impairment.
- Encourage students with hearing impairment to seat themselves toward the front of the lecture theatre where they will have an unobstructed line of vision. This is particularly important if the student is using an interpreter, lip-reading, relying on visual clues or using a hearing aid which has a limited range.
- Use the FM (frequency modulation) hearing system or induction loop if these are available in the lecture theatre. Hearing aids may include transmitter/receiver systems with a clip-on microphone for the lecturer. If using such a microphone it is not necessary to change your speaking or teaching style.
- Ensure that any background noise is minimised.
- Repeat clearly any questions asked by students in the lecture or class before giving a response.
- Do not speak when facing the blackboard. Be aware that moustaches, beards, hands, books or microphones in front of your face can add to the difficulties of lip-readers. Students who lip-read cannot function in darkened rooms. You may need to adjust the lighting in your teaching environment. If a sign interpreter is employed, follow the hints for working with a sign interpreter.
- It is difficult for a student watching a signer to also take notes from an overhead or blackboard. Neither is a signer able to translate, at the same time, both your words and any information given on an overhead. It is important then that all information should be available in handout.
- Provide written materials to supplement all lectures, tutorials and laboratory sessions. Announcements made regarding class times, activities, field work, industry visits etc should be given in writing as well as verbally.
- Allow students to record lectures or, preferably, make copies of your lecture notes available. Flexible delivery of teaching materials via electronic media is also particularly helpful for students who have difficulty accessing information in the usual ways. For deaf students new technology, and the internet in particular, can be used to bridge many gaps.
- Ensure that lists of the subject-specific jargon and technical terms which students will need to acquire are made available early in the course.
- Any videos or films used should, where possible, be captioned. When this is not possible, you will need to consider alternative ways for students with hearing impairment to access the information.
- In tutorials, assist students who lip-read by having the student sit directly opposite you and ensure, if possible, that they can see all other participants. Control the discussion so that only one person is speaking at a time.
- Students with hearing impairment, especially those with an associated speech disorder, may prefer to have another student present their tutorial papers.
- Language abilities are often affected by hearing impairment. Many students with hearing impairment have lower reading levels, and a limited vocabulary, particularly those deafened in childhood. Provide reading lists well before the start of a course so that students with hearing impairment can begin reading early. Consider tailoring these reading lists when necessary, and provide guidance to key texts.
- Allow assignments or reviews to be completed on an in-depth study of a few texts rather than a broad study of many.
- Do not make students over-anxious about making mistakes, asking questions, getting through the work or meeting learning goals. It may be helpful for students with a hearing impairment to have an individual orientation to laboratory equipment or computers to minimise anxiety, particularly in cases where class sizes are large and where it may be difficult to see or hear the demonstrator.
In considering alternative forms of assessment, equal opportunity, not a guaranteed outcome, is the objective. You are not expected to lower standards to accommodate students with a disability but rather are required to give them a reasonable opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned. Once you have a clear picture of how the disability impacts on learning you can consider alternative assessment strategies.
- When their range of vocabulary is limited, students may require the use of a thesaurus or dictionary during exams. A personal computer with spelling and grammar functions may be required.
- Provide alternatives to those assignments which are based on interviews or questionnaires, and be flexible with assignment deadlines, particularly if students have had to wait for taped material to be transcribed.
- Provide extra time in examinations, particularly extra time for reading questions. Some students will prefer to have questions and instructions ‘signed’ to them.
Adapted from a publication in the UniAbility series