Discussing the Disability

Authors: Ellen Tacchi, M.A.T., Trinity University, and Angela Peake, M.A.T., Trinity University

Teachers who have students who are deaf or hearing impaired may be required to make accommodations in order to help the student reach potential.  This chapter lists some specific accommodations that teachers may wish to incorporate into their classroom and teaching.   By implementing a few of the accommodations, the teacher can help the child with a hearing impairment or deafness feel comfortable, confident, and successful in the general education setting.

Allowing a student who is deaf or hard of hearing to explain his/her disability to the other students in the classroom can help create a sense of community.  This will allow the curiosity of other students to be appeased, as well as allow the student to be the center of attention in a positive way.  Not every student will be comfortable talking about the disability; therefore, it is important to check ahead of time rather than forcing a class discussion.  If the student is uncomfortable with the disability, the teacher needs to create a warm and inviting environment within the classroom.  This type of environment will help the student to feel safe and secure when at school and therefore more comfortable about learning.  If the teacher does choose to have the discussion with the class, it is important to stress the similarities between all the students rather than the differences.  Many students will notice the differences and have questions about them, but the similarities still need to be stressed.  Allowing the student who is hard of hearing or deaf a few minutes to talk about his/her disability and the other students a chance to ask their questions, enables learning to take place with fewer distractions (Sanders, 1988; Tacchi, 2005). 

Classroom Seating

When a student who is hard of hearing or deaf is placed within a general education classroom, seating arrangements are crucial.  Providing a student with a “preferred” seat in the classroom can allow for more interaction with the teacher and peers.  If the student is sitting in the front of the classroom with all the other students behind them, it may be easier to follow the conversation when the teacher is talking, but more difficult when other students are speaking.  Students relying on speech reading would need to turn around when a classmate begins to talk. 

When using preferred seating, the student should be able to see not only the teacher clearly but the classmates as well.  One form of preferred seating is the set up the seats in the classroom in a “U” shape.  This would allow the students to be able to see each other clearly, as well as see the teacher (Tvingstedt, 1995).  Another way of setting up the classroom would be in groups.  This would mean organizing the desks into small groups of about four or five students.  If the room is structured into groups, the students would be able to see most people clearly, and they could easily turn to see the rest of the class (Tacchi, 2005).  The teacher might also ask the student where he/she would like to sit.  This would allow the students to choose a seat from which they feel they can communicate and learn to the best of their ability (Keller, 2004).  The student should be allowed to change to another location in the room as flexibly as possible for better viewing of the teacher and peers (Waldron, 2005). Through the use of preferred seating, a teacher can set up the classroom to allow all students equal access to the conversations and curriculum.

Sign Interpreters and Notetakers

Students who are hearing impaired or deaf may have either a note-taker or a sign interpreter in the classroom to assist in their learning.  It is very important that the teacher and the child’s support staff member work together to help the child gain full access the curriculum.  The interpreter’s role in the classroom must be clearly defined prior to entering the classroom, so that situations do not arise out of misunderstanding.  The teacher and interpreter should discuss the following areas to insure that the student will receive the most benefit from the services provided:

  • Meet to discuss up-coming lessons and areas in which the child might struggle
  • Provide the interpreter with lesson plans
  • Keep each other informed of the student’s progress
  • Discuss how the student will be disciplined and who is responsible for the discipline
  • Address the student directly, not the interpreter
  • Determine where the interpreter will sit or stand and the interactions he/she will have with the class
  • Determine how the interpreter will let the teacher know if the student does not understand the material
  • Discuss the interpreter’s role in group discussions

The teacher and the interpreter can assure student success in the classroom through constant communication and monitoring of the student’s progress (Easterbrooks, 1998; National Deaf Children’s Society [NDCS], 2004; British Colombia Ministry of Education [BCME], 2001).

The use of a note-taker in the classroom provides the student with the freedom to follow the lesson and receive visual cues from the teacher.  A student who has a hearing impairment or is deaf may have difficulty taking notes and listening at the same time; however, with the use of a note-taker, the problem is eliminated.  Susan Easterbrooks noted that in order for note-taking to be successful, several guidelines need to be followed:

  • The note-taker turns in the notes to the teacher and the teacher reviews them for accuracy
  • The note-taker should be trained in note-taking skills
  • The note-taker should have knowledge of the subject.

At the secondary level, a student with good note-taking skills might be asked to write notes on impress carbon paper.  At the end of class, the student with the hearing loss can receive these notes without delay (Waldron, 2005).  By following the above guidelines, the student should benefit from the note-taker and gain full access the lesson visually without missing any information.


Body language, facial expressions, and gestures are all an essential part of daily conversation that is often taken for granted.  All three of these things can help relate how the speaker is feeling to the listener.  For many students who are hard of hearing or deaf, non-verbal communication becomes critical.  It provides extra support to help determine what has been said.  Teaching students the importance of non-verbal communication can help support their confidence with spoken language.  It is not only important to teach the uses of body language, facial expressions, and gestures in the classroom, but to model them as well.  Teachers should use non-verbal communication techniques on a daily basis to help support subject content (Peake, 2005).  Pointing out and explaining non-verbal cues also allows students  to expand this awareness into social situations outside the classroom.

Some students with hearing impairment use the strategy of speech reading to enhance their understanding of oral language.  This involves not only looking at the lip movement as a person speaks, but also at the facial expressions in order to determine the meaning of what is being said.  In order to encourage speech reading, the teacher needs to face the student when talking.  When the teacher’s back is turned, the student is forced to rely solely on what he/she hears to gain information.  By facing the student, the teacher is providing the student with an extra assurance that he/she has understood the information correctly (Naussbaum, 2003).  If the teacher needs to write any information on the board or overhead projector, it is important to do so before discussing the material (NDCS, 2004).  This way, the students are not denied the chance to speech read while the teacher is writing down the important information.  It is also important for the teacher to teach the other students to face each other when talking.  In order to avoid singling out the student who is deaf or hard of hearing, the teacher can explain that it is common courtesy to face others when speaking to them, (The Ear Foundation, 1991).  By doing this, the student with hearing impairment may feel more comfortable within the classroom and may be more willing to interact with peers.

Lighting plays an important role in the classroom.  Many classrooms have florescent lights and windows that can cause shadows throughout the classroom.  These lights can also cause a glare for people who are looking towards them.  When a teacher stands with his/her back to a window, the students facing the teacher may see a glare (The Ear Foundation, 1991).  Many students may look away from the teacher and concentrate solely on what the teacher is saying.  For a student that relies heavily on speech reading, the backlighting causes them to rely mostly on auditory information, as he/she cannot see the speaker.  In order to keep this from happening, the teacher must be aware of the lighting throughout the classroom.  It might be easier to keep the blinds on the windows shut in order to eliminate one cause of glare and shadows.  It is important for the teacher to watch the students within the classroom for cues as to whether or not there is a glare.  If many students are looking away, squinting, or using their hand to block off part of the light, chances are there is a glare on the speaker.  When a teacher spots these signals, he/she should move to another area of the room and then continue talking (Naussbaum, 2003; The Ear Foundation, 1991; Tacchi, 2005).

The teacher’s placement within the classroom also plays a major role in a student’s ability to speech read.  The teacher needs to remember to stay in the same area or spot as much as possible.  If the teacher is constantly walking around the classroom or pacing, the student who is speech reading will be forced to follow the speaker with his/her eyes as well as try to understand what is being said (NDCS, 2004).

When some people meet a person who is deaf or hard of hearing, they try to speak louder and slower.  As a teacher, it is important to remember to speak as naturally and clearly as possible.  The students are used to listening to daily conversations that are spoken at a normal rate.  For this reason, and to allow for easier speech reading, speaking with too loud or soft a volume, or more quickly or slowly than normal speech can cause difficulty in comprehension of what has been said.  People may think that by speaking slower they are allowing the person who is hard of hearing or deaf more time to comprehend what has been said, but in fact, they are making it harder to speech read, as the movements of the face are different from when a person is speaking naturally.  It is not only important for the teacher to speak naturally, but to ensure that the student's peers do as well (Naussbaum, 2003; Tacchi, 2005). 

Speech reading is easiest when standing between three and six feet away from the person to whom you are speaking.  A teacher with a child who relies heavily on speech reading should always keep this in mind.  If you are too close, the student might have a hard time seeing your entire face as well as watching your body language.  If you are too far away, the student will have to try harder to see your face clearly enough to speech read (The Ear Foundation, 1991). 

Before beginning discussions, lecturing, giving directions, or any activity that requires listening, it is important for the teacher to gain students' attention and focus on the speaker.  It will also provide them with a chance to refocus their attention before any critical information has been given, therefore allowing them the chance to sure to identify the speaker whenever a new person begins talking.  This means that the teacher must identify the new speaker by name, including when students are asking or answering questions during discussions.  This will allow all students the chance to give the new speaker undivided attention (NDCS, 2004). 

Insisting on the rule of one speaker at a time is essential, so that a child who is wearing a hearing aid will hear everything and avoid difficulties distinguishing among the noises within the classroom.  By insisting on the rule of one speaker at a time, the teacher is allowing a student the chance to focus solely on the person speaking and not on tuning out background noise (Peake, 2005). 

Before a child can begin to read, it is critical to be fluent in the language.  To promote fluency, students should be immersed in the language and be able to comprehend what is said to them on a daily basis.  A child must be able to interact and converse with peers and others.  For some children with hearing impairment, this may mean teaching a visual language (sign language) (French, 1999).  When a teacher has a student who relies on sign language as the primary mode of communication, it will be important for the teacher to learn a few basic signs.  One way to go about learning basic sign language would be to ask the interpreter who is helping the student or ask the student personally.  If the student is comfortable, he/she might be willing to teach classmates some signs as well.  The use of signing in the classroom, can make the student feel more comfortable and at home while at school (Tacchi, 2005).  Teaching all students in the class as many signs as possible on an ongoing basis also creates a respect by hearing students for sign language as a method of communication. 

Australian educators may want to read Johnston and Schembi (Eds.) The Survival Guide to Auslan: A Beginner's Dictionary, published in 2003 in Sydney by the North Rocks Press.  Additionally, the link to the Auslan dictionary on-line is www.auslan.org.au.

American educators can link to an American Sign Language dictionary at www.masterstech-home.com/ASLDict.html.

Educators can link to a British Sign Language dictionary at www.british-sign.co.uk/learnbslsign language



Students have difficulty when they encounter new vocabulary within the classroom.  When teaching lessons where the new vocabulary words are essential to the content of the lesson, the teacher should provide a vocabulary list to the student ahead of time.  This will allow the student to learn the vocabulary prior to the class and help with the use of speech reading.  The vocabulary can also be placed throughout the classroom with picture cues for the students as a reminder of the definitions and the context in which the words will be used.  The teacher should also write the vocabulary on the board as it is discussed in the lesson for the students to use as a reference (NDCS, 2004).   Wherever possible, the sign for the vocabulary word should accompany the picture cue.  This will enable all students to learn both simultaneously.

For appropriate assessment, students with hearing impairments may require adapted tests or testing environments.  Oral directions prior to the test may be difficult for the student to follow; therefore, some modifications may be necessary for the student to understand the instructions for the activity.  Beech (1999) noted that some accommodations that might be necessary include:

  • Extended time for testing
  • Converting oral examinations to written examinations
  • Change in location of test due to noise distractions
  • Written instructions instead of oral instructions for completing the test
  • Providing picture cues of directions (such as a stop sign or arrows)
  • Underlining or highlighting important words in the instructions
  • After the test, the teacher may want to discuss any problems the student encountered and how he/she felt about them, with suggestions for improvement of the testing process in the future.

Teachers should not find it necessary to write new tests for students with hearing impairments.  Rather these accommodations can help the student be successful when taking a test in the classroom (Beech, 1999).

Types of Instruction


Visual Materials

Because students rely primarily on visual representations such as the use of an overhead, posters, videos, or notes on the board will be important teaching tools.  While using these visual representations, the teacher must make sure that he/she is clearly pointing to the information focused on in the discussion and then give the student a few minutes to process the information.  The teacher must also take into account that the visual material cannot be too overwhelming or the student will be unable to process the information quickly, and therefore may fall behind (NDCS, 2004).

The overhead can be used to display visual images or an outline of the material to be covered.  The teacher is still able to face the classroom while lecturing, allowing the student to access the information on the overhead, as well as to see the teacher while he/she is talking (Chang, Richards, & Jackson, 1996).  Posters are a good way of representing information in a lesson and should be used as frequently as possible.  The teacher, however, needs to remember to clearly point to the poster and the specific parts that are being used to reinforce the verbal message (NDCS, 2004).

Videos can be used in the classroom provided that they include closed-captioning and/or the teacher has provided the student with a summary of the material to be covered in the video.  It is important to provide both forms of information to the student, so that he/she will be able to turn to the handout for clarification.  The student should also be allowed to access the video either before or after the lesson, in order to pre-view or re-view the video’s contents.  It is also important for the lights to remain partially on during the viewing of the video, so that student is able to take visual cues from the teacher or interpreter if necessary.  The teacher may also want to stop the video occasionally to check for understanding of the material (NDCS, 2004; Battat, 1998).  

The classroom teacher may also want to consider writing information on the board during a lesson.  The teacher can use the board for recording the main ideas of the lesson, a list of key topics to be covered, or for recording the daily schedule.  This allows the student to reference the board if confused as to what is being taught or expected.  The teacher can also use the board to write a list of concepts to be covered in each lesson.  This allows the student to follow along and have a sense of where the lesson is heading and what material is included.  By writing the schedule in a prominent place in the classroom, students will be able to access the information easily and make reference to it as necessary.  In addition to the schedule, it is also important that the teacher write down any announcements and assignments on the board.  This will allow all students to quickly check and see what he/she need to be working on, as well as to locate important information (NDCS, 2004; Battat, 1998). 

The teacher might limit the time spent on lectures and focus attention on teaching through hands-on activities.  This allows the student to interact with the lesson in a manner that does not cause fatigue.  It can be exhausting for the student to follow along with a lesson either through the use of an interpreter, speech reading, or his/her own hearing. The use of hands-on activities gives the student a break, benefits the entire class, and does not single out a specific student as needing accommodations in order to learn (NDCS, 2004).

Modifying the Acoustical Environment

Students may find it difficult to be in a classroom due to the noise level from the activities and other sounds, such as the heater, lighting, and overhead projector.  Educators need to take these potential distractions into consideration when planning classroom space and location.  A reduction in noises will allow all students to learn in a more comfortable auditory environment.

Many things can be done reduce noise.  The goal of the teacher is to limit hard surfaces that can cause sounds to echo.  By covering these surfaces, the teacher will eliminate some of the background noise that may interfere with the hearing of the students.  Easterbrooks (1998) and Ratcliffe (2004) noted that some of the ways to reduce sound include:

  • Cover tile floors with carpet
  • Put rubber tips on the legs of chairs
  • Cover tables with cloths
  • Place acoustic tiles on walls
  • Hang thick curtains
  • Make sure lights and other equipment are in good working order
  • Shut doors and windows when outside noises are present.

By making these accommodations in the classroom, the students should be able to focus more on the teacher’s voice and less on the varying noises throughout the classroom.

In addition to modifying the environment, careful consideration needs to be made as to where the classroom is located, when lessons and instructions are to be given, and how the students will work individually and in groups.  Room location is vital to how much background noise will be generated.  A classroom located next to a gym or cafeteria may prove to be too noisy and cause all students to lose focus or have difficulty hearing the teacher’s voice. 

If it is not possible to locate a classroom where there will be minimal outside noise, the teacher needs to take into consideration the movement of students near the classroom when planning lessons.  It would not benefit the students to give important instructions while other students are moving about the hallways.  The teacher needs to plan the instructional time when there is the least amount of noise creating distractions.  The teacher also needs to plan the working time of the students so that group discussions and individual work do not interfere with each other, causing too much background noise in the classroom (Anderson, 2001; Ratcliffe, 2004).

Group discussions are another source for noise within the classroom that can diminish listening ability.  While working in groups, students need to be reminded to be conscious of the loudness of their voices so as not to distract other groups who are working.  They also need to follow many of the same rules as the teacher does for speaking, such as:

  • Speaking naturally
  • Keeping hands away from their mouths
  • Identifying who is going to speak next
  • Allowing only one person to speak at a time
  • Arranging the group so everyone can see each other
  • Requiring  students to ask for clarification

These rules will help to aid in discussions in the classroom and to eliminate some of the distracting background noise (NDCS, 2004).  The teacher may also want students to report back to the class on their group’s discussion.  They can display the information on a piece of large paper, allowing all students to benefit from seeing and hearing the information (BCME, 2001).

Alarm Systems

Throughout emergency situations, the teacher or an assigned "buddy" should (a) indicate the nature of the situation, and (b) responsibly and quickly move students to safety.  Practices of potential emergency responses are essential (Waldron, 2006).

Many alarm systems are based solely on a person’s ability to hear the signals as they are activated.  A child who is deaf or hard of hearing may have difficulty hearing the alarm sounding throughout the classroom and school.

It is important for the teacher to set up a system for the student to understand what is going on.  This could include writing on the board in capital letters “FIRE DRILL,” posting a neon sign on the board or the student’s desk, or using a picture cue to tell the child that there is an alarm sounding.  The best way to accommodate the student would be to have a flashing fire alarm (or other alarm system) installed within the room (Keller, 2004).  This way, a child who cannot hear the alarm sounding would independently understand what is going on within the room.  In many areas, laws require flashing lights to be part of an emergency indicator structure.

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