An Introduction to Meeting the Needs of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students

tags: Center for Innovation and Leadership in Special Education Linking Research to Classrooms: A Blog for Educators


Jennifer Reesman, Ph.D., ABPP – Dr. Jen Reesman is a board certified pediatric neuropsychologist who founded and directs the Deafness-Related Evaluations and More (DREAM) Clinic in the Neuropsychology Department of the Kennedy Krieger Institute. She is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She is a graduate of Gallaudet University’s Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program, lover of languages, captions and accessibility. 

What’s in a name?  The confusion with labels.

The many labels used to describe our sense of hearing can be confusing. Common terms often include, Deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing loss. For the purpose of this blog post, we will focus on children who have educational needs related to their hearing, and may be Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing. We will not use the term hearing loss, because children born Deaf, or born with a hearing status that does not provide access to most sounds never “lost” their hearing and thus the term “hearing loss” would be an inaccurate label. The words Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing are preferred terms to words such as “Hearing Impairment” because of the negative association with those terms that focus on what the individual cannot do, as opposed to what they can. As Dr. I. King Jordan, the first Deaf President of Gallaudet University, succinctly put it, “Deaf people can do anything hearing people can do, except hear.”

Unlike vision (which includes a legal definition of blindness), there is no legal description of what hearing status constitutes being “Deaf” or “Hard-of-Hearing.”  The term “Deaf” can be used to refer to people who identify as members of the Deaf community, and the culture associated with it. It is important to note that in some places, you may see person-first language, while in others, you may see identity-first language and person-first language side-by-side. Many disability scholars have challenged the models for exclusive use of person-first language.  For example, you might see “the Deaf student,” or “Office of the Deaf.”

Individuals who identify as Hard-of-Hearing or Deaf may access sound through amplification devices, like hearing aids, or they may not. The use of sound amplification devices is a personal choice made by individuals and families. They may use cochlear implants, or they may not. 

Considerations for Access to Language

As the director of the DREAM clinic, I get the pleasure of meeting with great kids and their families. Their needs are diverse, as are the questions from their educators and families. One of the most common questions we receive deals with meeting a student’s needs for access to information, and how to support literacy and reading goals for Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing students.

In order to answer these questions, I always start with learning more about the individual. Just like other students in a class, students who are Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing are highly variable.  Knowing that the student is Deaf does not tell you all you need to know – but it does tell you that you need to be thinking about their access to language.

What is access to language?

Access to language refers to a child’s ability to see American Sign Language (ASL) signs or hear spoken English. Simply having hearing aids or a cochlear implant does not guarantee that a child has the auditory access to spoken language, without knowing more about their auditory system functioning while using those devices. 

How do teachers provide access to language for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing students?

While every student is different, all students need access to language! It is helpful to think about how language is used in your lesson and consider how Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing students might access the same language as their hearing peers.  For example, when using videos or movies for instruction, be sure to use captions. Captions provide both visual and auditory access to language and serve as a smart way to promote access for all students. If a student in your classroom requires an ASL interpreter to access the instruction in the classroom, make sure you work effectively with the interpreter to facilitate good turn-taking during discussion. Examine your classroom to make sure the students who need to see the interpreter have an uninterrupted line of sight..

Provide multiple means for the perception of language throughout your classroom.  This includes behavior management techniques. Think about the ways  you signal to get attention within your classroom. Do you typically use a verbal or auditory cue? In addition to talking, clapping, or ringing a bell, using a visual alert like, flashing some of the lights in the room on and off, can easily get attention.

Classrooms can be busy, noisy places at times. Decreasing interfering background noises can improve access for all of your students. This might mean putting tennis balls on the chair legs, closing a window to a busy street, or having carpeting and wall hangings to absorb noises from outside the room.

How do teachers support literacy skills for Deaf and Hard-ofHearing students?

Reading is the name of the game, and literacy skills are the key to success. For Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing students, some general principles to support literacy include maximizing the visual access to information within the classroom (posted vocabulary, schedules, use of captions, etc). Reading aloud in ASL or English is definitely encouraged, and if an interpreter is in the classroom to support access, give time to pause for the student to shift their attention between any text or illustrations and the interpreter.


Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing students are variable and need to be considered as individuals in order to have their needs met.  Remember to ask about your students’ needs, think about access to language within your classroom and teaching, and focus on what your deaf or Hard-of-Hearing students can do. 

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