Virginia Commonwealth University
November 5, 2014
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Cindi A. Jackson, M.Ed.

How can a secondary educator establish a trusting relationship with students who are deaf or hard of hearing? How can a secondary educator provide support and accommodations in a general education classroom, the hallway, the library, or even the cafeteria without compromising the dignity and independence of students who are deaf or hard of hearing? The following article attempts to help secondary educators become more supportive of students who are deaf or hard of hearing as they experience the challenges of the transition to young adulthood in a hearing world.

The needs for independence, acceptance, and accommodations

…Flash to a high school history class…

“My classmates and I sit facing a blank board while the teacher sits off to the side lecturing and giving notes orally. I struggle to keep up with the writing, speech reading, and listening to her. All of a sudden in the middle of the lecture and in front of the entire class, she says, “Cindi, I’ll give you the notes after class.” My face burns with embarrassment as I feel twenty pairs of eyes on me. I am mortified and very resentful that she brought attention to my disability, but I have to accept the notes.”

All adolescents search for self-identity, have a need to fit in with their peers, and at the same time want to be independent. All adolescents have a need for acceptance by their peers whether it is wearing the right clothes, having the right gadgets, or acting in an acceptable way. These needs increase, intensify, and may come into conflict as young people transition from middle to high school (Isakson and Jarvis, 1999). Students who are deaf and hard of hearing experience the challenges of normal adolescent development and the challenges posed by their disability.

Students with special needs often struggle to fit in with their “normal” peers, especially if their disability is noticeable. Secondary students who are deaf or hard of hearing are sensitive to being perceived as different from hearing peers. Deafness often is a hidden disability, but once displayed, deaf and hard of hearing students are sometimes viewed as strange or even scary, especially if their voice sounds high pitched or nasal. Also, not correctly saying certain sounds (e.g., s, sk, ch and sh), speaking in a loud or monotonous voice, or using sign language to communicate, may attract unwanted attention. Other examples such as not understanding someone who is talking to you, not hearing a comment directed at you in the middle of a noisy environment, repeating something and not realizing that the same thing was said just a minute ago, or not hearing someone directing a statement or question to you can also make one stand out as being different

Challenges for students who are deaf or hard of hearing

…Flash to a car with three girls with normal hearing and one who is hard of hearing…

Loud music is blaring out of the car stereo speakers. Loud conversations take place between three of the girls. The fourth girl is quiet and not saying much, but is trying to listen to the conversation and, unfortunately, is getting less than 25% of the conversation. One girl with normal hearing turns down the music and says, “Cindi, you’re being awfully quiet back there! Are you okay? ” Rather than speak the truth that she cannot hear anything being said over the music and wanting to fit in with the other girls who are talking over the music, Cindi responds back, “Oh, just spacing out!”

The need to be independent grows as students who are deaf and hard of hearing transition from middle to high school. This is a time when all students explore who they are and what kind of person they want to be. But it is even harder for students who are deaf or hard of hearing because not only are they searching for their self-identity, “Who Am I?” but they also have to fit into a hearing society. Here are some of the challenging questions they have to answer.

  • “Am I deaf or hard of hearing?”
  • “Do I want to communicate in sign language?”
  • “Do I want to use my voice?”
  • “Do I want to be in the deaf community or with the hearing community?”
  • “How can I do all the things that hearing students can do such as listen to music, whisper, participate in sports, after-school activities, understand the teacher, and take notes by myself?”

Classroom supports

…Flash to a conversation between a high school student and her case manager…

“I’m really having a difficult time understanding my social studies teacher. He does face the classroom and faces me as he lectures, but I’m having trouble completing my notes. I don’t know what to do, Mrs. Flarahty.” Mrs. Flarahty replies, “Let me talk with your social studies teacher and see if we can figure out what the issue might be, and we’ll go from there.”

All students with special needs have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that details the accommodations and modifications needed by the individual to achieve academic success. For most students who are deaf or hard of hearing, in order to be successful, the required accommodations and modifications may include visibility of the teacher’s face for speechreading, visual materials, and clarification of notes and concepts, lecture notes, or activities. Communication needs may include a sign language interpreter, oral interpreter, or the teacher simply facing the student when talking, and providing copies of notes. An excellent resource is the Guidelines for Working with Students Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing in Virginia Public Schools (2012), which offers common use of terminology, instructional strategies, and different educational methodologies.

Providing accommodations in ways that can be accepted

…Flash to a high school English classroom…

During a small group activity, John refuses to look at the sign language interpreter for clarification, preferring to get his information from his peers and teacher, because he feels that this does not make him standout as much. But, he does not realize that his refusal to pay attention to the sign language interpreter makes him stand out even more due to his lack of understanding of the task.

Teachers need to take a compassionate role when it comes to working with students who are deaf or hard of hearing. Accommodations can be provided in ways that respect the needs for acceptance and independence for the deaf or hard of hearing student. As teachers plan their lessons, they should consider using visual materials such as graphic organizers, pictures, images, simulations, and even videos with closed caption capabilities. Teachers can give a copy of the notes to the student with a disability as classwork papers are passed out to other students. A teacher’s simple questioning look at the student who is deaf or hard of hearing to check for understanding can help the student. The teacher can walk around the room and check with students individually to see if they understand the concept and activity and thus avoid confusion. Sometimes, just writing down what you want to say can help alleviate communication confusion between the teacher and the student with special needs. Something as simple as a sticky note can serve to remind the teacher to face in the student’s direction when talking.

Tips for the general educator who teaches students who are deaf or hard of hearing

…Flash to a high school meeting between student who is hard of hearing, her case manager, and a general education teacher…

“Mrs. Smith, Melissa has an issue that she needs to discuss with you,” says the case manager. “Go ahead, Melissa.” Melissa explains to the teacher that she does not like to be singled out in front of everyone. When Mrs. Smith recently asked if she is okay with the task, it embarrassed her. Mrs. Smith replies, “I’m sorry if you were embarrassed. That was not my intention. However, I do need to make sure that you understand your assignments. What can I do instead?” Melissa says, “I would prefer that you trust me to know when I need help understanding the task. If I don’t understand something, I will raise my hand or come up to you with a question. Can we do that?” All three agree that this is a viable solution.

Teacher helping a student

It is important to meet privately with the student to get a sense of what they prefer during class activities and to build a trusting relationship.

As educators, we need to be sensitive to students with disabilities’ overall sense of well-being and their desire to fit in with their “normal” peers. We need to help students who are deaf or hard of hearing accept and use their accommodations. You can get a sense of what the student is like by talking with the case manager and reading the IEP. Then, one should meet with the student’s case manager who may or may not be the teacher of students who are deaf and hard of hearing. If the case manager is not the special education teacher, invite this teacher to the meeting as well since he/she is a part of the Individualized Educational Planning (IEP) team.

It is also important to meet privately with the student to get a sense of what they prefer during class activities and to build a trusting relationship. There are many ways to build trust with students who are deaf and hard of hearing. One idea is to visit the special education classes serving these students. Don’t be afraid to talk to these students. Some students can speechread or have a sign language interpreter to sign for them. Another suggestion is to have students who use sign language as their preferred or primary communication modality teach you some signs. This is an excellent way to build trust. You can talk with them in the cafeteria or the library. Students like it when adults take an interest in their lives. An excellent resource is a book, On the fence: The hidden world of the hard of hearing by Drolsbaugh (2007). This resource provides many insights as to what students, who are deaf or hard of hearing, face in the hearing world.

Special education teachers can also invite other students or other teachers to visit the classrooms to interact with students who are deaf and hard of hearing. Administrators and special education teachers can create a format or forum for hearing students to interact with and learn from students with hearing losses such as a “Silent Lunch” in the cafeteria or an American Sign Language Club.

Students who are deaf or hard of hearing strive to fit in with their peers as they struggle with their sense of self-identity and the decision as to whether they will live primarily in a deaf community or the hearing community. They need an understanding educator who is willing to work with them and support them. Teachers can meet with the case manager or a teacher for the deaf and hard of hearing and the student to build a trusting relationship by working together and discussing the accommodations and modifications needed to ensure a successful secondary academic experience. Educators can also build relationships with these students by taking an interest in the student’s academic and home life. In doing so, students who are deaf or hard of hearing will have a more positive and nurturing secondary experience.


Isakson, K. and Jarvis, P. (1999). The adjustment of adolescents during the transition into high school: A short-term longitudinal study. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 28(1), 1-26.


Drolsbaugh, M.(2007). On the fence: The hidden world of the hard of hearing. Springhouse, PA: Handwave Publications

Harvey, M. A. (2004) Odyssey of hearing loss: Tales of triumph. San Diego, CA: DawnSign Press.

Mann, M. (2005). Hidden frustrations. Boys Town, NE: BoysTown Press

Stenross, B. (1999). Missed connections: Hard of hearing in a hearing world. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Virginia Department of Education. (2012) Guidelines for working with students who are deaf or hard of
hearing in Virginia public schools. Retrieved from



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