As part of D/deaf awareness week, Eleanor Hassall, current Warwick Enable President has answered some of your frequently asked questions:
- What do different levels of deafness mean?
- How can I make my classes more accessible?
- Do hearing aids/cochlear implants ‘fix’ deafness?
- What’s a radio aid and why am I being asked to wear one?
- Why do D/deaf students get extra time in exams/declare Deafness when submitting essays?
- How can I make communication/conversations easier for a D/deaf person?
- Where can I learn some basic BSL?
Deafness is broken down into 4 levels by audiologists: mild, moderate, severe, profound. I’ve included a picture below that puts these levels into context using an audiogram. On the X axis is sound frequency (low to high left to right) and on the Y axis is sound volume, increasing as it goes down. There are pictures of common sounds to show what these levels of deafness mean. So for example, I personally have mild deafness in my left ear and profound in my right. A firework or aeroplane could go off in my right ear and I literally wouldn’t hear it. But in my left, it’s just sounds like talking and doorbells I can’t hear.
The main thing I can suggest is to ask the student as everyone will have personal preferences as to what works best for them. However, some general suggestions are:
- If you are using any audio-visual content such as videos, podcasts, webinars etc. these must have captions or transcriptions, and if they don’t, you need to be prepared to provide one for your students. Please try to avoid things like saying ‘oh it doesn’t matter’ or ‘you don’t really need to watch this anyway’ as this is incredibly demoralising and isolating.
- Send us PowerPoints, handouts, lesson plans, etc. in advance (this means more than 10 minutes before the start of a class!). If we can see these in advance, not only will it help with the phonetic issues mentioned above, but also if we know what sort of things to expect/listen out for, it makes lipreading and following a lot easier.
- If you’re teaching a long class (over an hour) please consider including a short break as concentration fatigue is a serious issue for us! I can’t go more than about 50 minutes before listening and following becomes so exhausting my brain gives up.
- If someone has a BSL interpreter or a notetaker in the class, speak to the student not the person providing their communication support.
For online classes:
- Ask people to turn their cameras on when they speak if possible. The subtle change in language from ‘turn cameras on’ to ‘only when speaking’ massively increased the number of people who turned their cameras on when contributing as they didn’t feel pressured to have them on all the time. This is hugely helpful as it allows for lip reading.
- Try not to speak too fast – this also goes for recording lectures. The faster you speak, the harder it is for the auto-captions to pick you up and the less accurate they become – and trust me, they’re already pretty bad.
- If people won’t turn their cameras on to speak, ask them to post a summary of their point in the chat and/or as the class tutor, summarise what they said with your camera on.
For in-person classes:
- Lay tables out in a horse-shoe shape. This is because it means we can see the maximum number of people for lip reading.
- Repeat questions from the floor, as it were, back to the rest of the room so that we’re clear on the questions that are being asked and can follow the discussion.
- Don’t talk with your back turned (e.g., when you’re writing on a board) I can’t ‘hear’ you if I can’t see your lips.
Not even close! Hearing aids do not restore hearing, nor do they give the same access to sound as a hearing person. They simply amplify the noise and cannot distinguish between sounds or prioritise, for example, someone’s speech over traffic. This means they’re pretty useless where there is background noise or more than one person talking as when there are multiple sounds, all you can hear is one big indistinguishable wall of sound. Personally, for this reason, I often end up having to take my hearing aids out in seminars, especially during group work, and just rely on my lip-reading skills.
A radio aid works a bit like a personal microphone for deaf students. The part you will be given is the transmitter containing a microphone which will pick up your voice and wirelessly transmit it into the receiver which is typically either built into the student’s cochlear implant/hearing aid or is worn as a loop around their neck. The sound feeds straight into the hearing aid and significantly reduces background noise, making it a lot easier for the student to follow classes.
If you are being asked to use a radio aid, please bear in mind they are incredibly powerful devices so shouting, eating, even drinking will all be amplified significantly into the student’s hearing aid! Also please remember to take the radio aid off if you need to leave the room or speak to someone in private.
At the risk of generalising, which I am very keen to avoid doing as Deafness is such a unique and individual experience, many Deaf students had language acquisition problems when growing up due to inability to access sounds. This means reading takes us longer as we struggle with piecing together sounds and phonetics as we can’t naturally ‘hear’ them in our head. We also often have exams in a room on our own for this reason too – so we can say things aloud to sound them out to try and figure it out. Reading and understanding things takes us a lot longer so the extra time mitigates this.
We would also declare our Deafness when submitting essays/exams/coursework as, especially for native BSL users (where they grew up with BSL as their first language instead of English), we might write sentences in a weird order as BSL has its own sentence structures, grammar rules, word orders etc. meaning that we might write in this manner rather than standard English. There are also some things in BSL that might not directly translate into English meaning we use weird word choices/phrasing that a hearing person wouldn’t. We declare our deafness so this can be considered when marking.
It will come as no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic has made communication 100x harder for Deaf people! So many of us rely on lipreading and the arrival of masks has taken this away removing our main form of communication! So, what tips can I give?:
- Be patient! If we don’t hear you first time, please don’t say ‘it doesn’t matter’ or ‘I’ll tell you later’. And if we ask you to repeat yourself, please say the same thing again as we’ll be trying to piece together what you’ve said and just need to hear it again.
- Don’t just shout louder behind your mask as this won’t make it any easier for us to hear you. Alternatives include: write it in the notes section of your phone, use a pen and paper, gesture, get a mask with a clear panel to allow for lip reading, learn some basic BSL (more on how below), or as a last resort step back to be 2m away and lower your mask so we can lip read.
- Make sure you have our attention before speaking to us e.g. large visual gesture or gently tapping us on the shoulder (some Deaf people don’t like the latter option though so always check).
- Once you do have our attention, make sure you’re facing us when you speak and where possible try and have conversations with us in places with minimal back ground noise/distractions.
- Speak clearly and naturally – please don’t shout or try and over exaggerate your lip patterns as this actually makes it harder to follow.
The most important thing is that you learn from someone who is qualified to teach and not just a random person off YouTube! There are so many people who have a level 1 or level 2 (level 2 is only GCSE standard) who post ‘educational’ videos online and these do more harm than good! I can really recommend the Doncaster Deaf Trust who have put their entire BSL Level 1 course online for everyone for free! All you have to do is register for an account.
You may also be interested in:
Disability Framework (workplace adjustments)
Staff Networks - including Disabled Staff Network
Taskforces and SIC - including Disability Taskforce
Policies - including Disability and Mental Health Policy
Charters - including Disability Standard