To quote the first Deaf president of Gallaudet University, “A Deaf person can do anything except hear.” The primary barrier for deaf or hard of hearing students isn’t that they can’t hear; the barrier is communication. Let’s explore this by examining 6 important considerations when developing teaching strategies and online learning programs in support of students with hearing loss.
#1 – Consider whether hearing loss took place before or after language was acquired
When we start to peel back the layers of this topic, the first factor to consider is when the hearing loss took place. This is important because a child acquires language as an infant initially from their environment. The specific language French, Italian, English and/or American Sign Language is inconsequential, the critical component is that the child is exposed to language. The lack of exposure due to a moderate or severe hearing loss results in delayed language development, ability to learn often even causing impariments, as well as other impacts such as socialization.
My mother is an example of a student that was not exposed to a formal language until entering school at the age of 5. Prior to going to school she knew words and was able to communicate on a basic level. Once in an environment where she could comprehend language, she excelled. So much so, she returned as a middle school teacher to provide Deaf children the same opportunity she had. She also loved to read, exposing her to English and furthering the development of her 2nd language. My father on the other hand became deaf when he was 9 and communicated by reading lips and speaking. Most people just thought he had an accent and didn’t realize he was deaf until he told them he couldn’t hear. He learned to sign at the age of 22.
#2 – The inability to hear is not an indicator of cognitive ability
In a Ted Talk, Rachel Kolb, who was born Deaf, stated, “The median reading achievement of 17 to 21 year-old deaf students leaving American secondary schools is at the 4th grade level.” This is often times not an indicator of the student’s cognitive ability; it is a result of the student’s delayed and lack of continual exposure to language. When a child who is born deaf is exposed to natural language acquisition, their ability to academically excel in a language that can be comprehended is equivalent to any other child.
#3 – Perceiving ASL as a language
There is still, even today, a misunderstanding of the linguistic validity of American Sign Language (ASL). In the 1960’s it was shown through research that ASL has its own syntax, morphology and structure and is associated with the American Deaf Culture. No longer is it considered a crude collection of gestures or an inferior form of English. This language and culture often presents itself in the academic environment much in the same ways as ESL students studying here in the U.S. Because Deaf students are often times not perceived as having a distinct language and culture, instructors are often confused when viewing the student based only on their loss of hearing.
#4 – Regulations indicate that effective communication is critical to providing access to persons with disabilities
For those who experience a hearing loss after language development, the communication barrier isn’t exacerbated with a language delay, but the challenge of accessing equivalent communication still prevails. These students range from individuals that have had a hearing loss for a while to some who have just recently experienced this change such as our veterans returning for retraining. In a letter to San Jose State, the Office of Civil Rights stated, “The regulation requires a public entity, such as a state university, to take appropriate steps to ensure that communications with persons with disabilities are as effective as communications with others. Thus, the issue is not whether the student with the disability is merely provided access, but the issue is rather the extent to which the communication is actually as effective as that provided to others.”
When discussing effective communications in an online course, often the question arises, is a transcript an appropriate accommodation for a video? I then ask, if you were to turn the volume off on the video would you be able to read the transcript and follow the video, pairing the words on the transcript with the actions taking place in the video? Would that be considered as effective as you listening and watching the video? Would closed captions, including descriptions of relevant environmental sounds, increase the effectiveness of what is being communicated?
#5 – eLearning environments can make for a more inclusive communication environment
A primary goal of education is to provide a learning environment with effective communications for students, and as we can see, there’s not one answer as to what is most effective. Since my father did not sign when he was younger, if he had been provided an ASL interpreter in high school, the interpreter might as well have been speaking Greek. But, if he had been provided an oral interpreter, he would have had the opportunity to follow all that was being said in class.
In the eLearning environment most communication is conducted asynchronously. This makes it much easier to create an inclusive multimodal communication environment. This increased level of communication actually benefits all students. 75% of all students, not just Deaf and Hard of Hearing students, say they use captions as a learning aid.
#6 – Well-designed eLearning courses should be a priority
A well-designed eLearning course communicates with more than text or audible words. Visual communication takes place in various ways:
- Importance of content is established by its placement in the course
- Icons are used to identify and communicate similar activities or content items
- Closed Captioning needs to be included for all video content
- Transcripts needs to be included for all audio content
- When acronyms are used, make sure they are first clearly identified
- Synchronous sessions may need live captioning and possibly an interpreter
It is critical that these aspects are clear throughout the course and don’t create mixed, confusing or meaningless messages. Inconsistencies in areas of placement or icons can be considered visual static causing the learner a challenge in understanding a clear visual message. With the expectations handed down by the Department of Justice and Office of Civil Rights, it is clear as to the need for effective communications; effective communication needs to take place.