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Accommodations for Educators who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

Most commonly discussed accommodations for educators who are deaf or hard of hearing.

From the desk of Teresa Goddard, M.S., Lead Consultant – Assistive Technology Services

Summer has barely begun, but JAN is already receiving inquiries about educators who will need accommodations when school resumes.  Today I’d like to introduce some of JAN’s most commonly discussed accommodation ideas for educators who are deaf or hard of hearing.

One point that is on everyone’s mind these days is masks. Currently, in some settings employees who are deaf are providing clear face masks to people with whom they need to communicate, but these are hard to get now. I think that the global pandemic caught everyone who makes, sells, and uses clear face masks by surprise. Supplies are low. There is one FDA-approved surgical facemask with a clear window and others that are clear except for the filtering materials. For example, the Totobobo can be cleaned and reused but was not designed with lip reading in mind.

There are also programs making reusable masks with clear windows and providing instructions on how to make such masks. However, feedback from JAN consumers shows that handmade options tend to fog up and may be very hot to wear outdoors or in areas without effective climate control. Commercial options have also recently become available and are listed on the JAN website under Masks-Clear.

If a clear mask cannot be obtained, or others won’t or can’t wear it, and other alternatives such as a clear face shields are not enough to meet safety-related needs, there are other options.

For in-classroom communication, use of an assistive listening device in combination with a wireless microphone that students could pass around in order to ask question or make comments could be useful.  During the current public health emergency, setting up a stationary microphone station that students can walk to when responding is a potential alternative so students don’t have to touch the device. Array microphones may also be useful.

Such a microphone could also be of use with an automated captioning device. There are various devices designed to support face-to-face communication that also provide captions. Some examples of these and other communication access technologies can be found on the JAN website.

When accommodating teachers who are hard of hearing, one approach to consider would be to use a combination of assistive listening equipment and noise abatement materials to improve the signal-to-noise ratio in the teacher's classroom.

An app on a phone inside a waterproof case that could be wiped or removed and soaked in sanitizer may also help. Texting or communicating via an encrypted messaging app,such as Signal, could be a good option if available. Some have also found texting and whiteboard apps to be helpful for simple, brief, and impromptu conversations. Ava is an example of an app-based captioning technology designed to support face-to-face meetings and conversations. While not designed for use in remote meetings, I have observed it transcribing from a speakerphone with surprising accuracy.  I have also used it to successfully transcribe through a surgical mask at a distance of six feet. These are just a few examples of apps for employees who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Below are some additional accommodation ideas for educators who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Difficulty communicating with others due to hearing loss or no hearing:

  • Provide assistive listening devices (FM, infrared, power loop)
  • Provide real-time captioning via computer/PC projector
  • Use hearing aids
  • Implement appropriate positioning and lighting to assist with lip reading
  • Reduce background noise and improve acoustics by shutting classroom doors and windows, adding carpet and acoustical wall/ceiling coverings or soundproof panels, improving etiquette at meetings, and reducing air rush sound from air and heating ducts
  • Allow written communication
  • Consider use of a sign language interpreter
  • Use email and instant messaging

Difficulty accessing information from TV/DVD/Digital video:

  • Have equipment capable of providing closed captioning when it is available (new television, decoder) 
  • Use assistive listening devices
  • Provide closed captioning (either in-house or by using a service)

Difficulty communicating over the telephone due to hearing impairment:

  • Provide text telephone
  • Provide telephone amplification via amplified phone (handset or via in-line or portable amplifiers)
  • Use relay service
  • Use captioned telephone and Cap-tel service
  • Use voice-carry-over phone
  • Use video phone

Difficulty responding to fire and emergency signals:

  • Add visual signals to auditory alarms
  • Use a vibrating pager
  • Consider allowing use of a service animal to alert to environmental sounds
  • Have students or another employee alert person that alarm has sounded
  • Use Signtel Intercom System

When accommodating teachers who are hard of hearing, one approach to consider would be to use a combination of assistive listening equipment and noise abatement materials to improve the signal-to-noise ratio in the teacher's classroom.

Classroom management is a typical concern. One way of improving situational awareness in the classroom for a teacher with a sensory impairment is to provide compensatory information via another sensory pathway.  For instance, installing strategically placed mirrors to allow improved line of sight may be helpful, and is more practical in situations where the individual stays in one classroom.  Some teachers prefer industrial mirrors in the back of the classroom.  Others find circular mirrors installed in the corners of a room (like what you might see in a retail space for inventory control) to be more helpful. Of course, a combination could also be used.  When policies permit or can be modified, a CCTV with a camera that could be used to zoom in on areas where concerning behavior is being observed, or where it tends to occur, can also be helpful. 

Some teachers find that behaviors tend to occur when they are facing away from the students, for example when writing on a whiteboard or chalkboard.  Cyclist's mirrors may be helpful in such cases, especially if the teacher wears eyeglasses to which these could be attached. Strategically placed industrial mirrors may also help. 

Another strategy is to reduce the amount of time that the teacher is facing away from students by installing a computer projector and screen and/or an interactive whiteboard. This approach can allow the teacher to stand or be seated in a location that allows improved visual observation of students while adding instructional content to the board (or screen) from a distance.

There is also one product that may help with knowing when a student or other person is attempting to leave or enter a classroom. It is a pressure-sensitive mat that can be used with a vibrating pager.  When someone steps on the mat, a silent signal is sent to the vibrating pager. Other alerting devices may also be helpful in increasing awareness of important sounds.

It may also be helpful to communicate information that is normally shared via intercom to this teacher in a different way. There is currently only one company of which I am aware that carries an accessible intercom product for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Other methods that I have seen include using email summaries of announcements and text messaging or instant messaging to alert teachers with a hearing impairment to important announcements or intercom messages that apply to their classroom.  A buddy system with another teacher or an in-person messenger with a note may also be used.  For teachers who have a telephone in their classroom that they can access, a phone call may also be used as an alternative to an intercom page.

The best access method for telephones will vary.  The treating audiologist is in the best position to say what accessories would be needed to connect a telephone to an individual’s hearing aids and to offer a professional opinion on how well audio access to a telephone is likely to work for a particular individual.  Some individuals may benefit from captioned telephone calls or use of a video phone and video relay service (VRS) as opposed to using a standard phone with an assistive listening device or adaptor.

For those with Bluetooth-enabled hearing devices, whether hearing aids or cochlear implants, a typical approach is not to seek a Bluetooth headset but rather an alternate means of connecting to the phone in such a way that the sound from the phone is sent wirelessly into the hearing aid or cochlear implant to be amplified according to the treating audiologist's chosen settings.  

An audiologist or hearing device vendor may be helpful in determining the best type of streaming device to use, since not all streamers are compatible with all Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids. These same professionals may be helpful in determining the best means of phone access for an individual, which in some cases may involve other technology instead of or in addition to technology to access the Bluetooth features of a hearing device.

Not all hearing aids and cochlear implants have Bluetooth capability.  Some use a different technology called a telecoil or t-coil to receive sound signals wirelessly, and can be used with telecoil-compatible headsets.

For those preparing to teach remotely, using a tool like Zoom that allows CART to be delivered easily or using Microsoft Teams and using remote CART in a second window may be effective. American Sign Language users may be best served by conferencing in an interpreter. Whatever platform is selected, it is always a good idea to become familiar with any accessibility features in advance. 

Another example of technology for communication in classes and meetings is the UbiDuo 2, a portable, wireless, battery-powered, standalone communication device that facilitates simultaneous face-to-face communication through two displays and two keyboards.  Options with speech output are also available. Since the two halves of the UbiDuo can be detached from one another and used to send text wirelessly over a distance, some teachers have either set up a station for questions or allowed the students to pass one half around the room.  The students type questions and comments that then appear on the teacher's half of the device.  The teacher can respond verbally or by typing back.  

In some cases, a teaching assistant or classroom aide who can act as a second set of ears in the classroom may be helpful in addition to or as an alternative to use of assistive technology. Although reassignment is also an option and may be the most practical approach in some situations, there are many potential accommodations to explore. 

Here’s to all the amazing teachers who are gearing up for fall classes!  Don’t forget to have some fun in the sun and contact JAN to discuss any accommodation questions.

employee holding his hand over his ear to listen