There are an estimated 11 million people in the UK with some form of hearing loss1. Around 800,000 of these people are severely or profoundly deaf.
User needs vary depending on the level of hearing loss and when it took place. There is an assumption that the only necessary adjustment is to supply everything in a written format. This is not necessarily the case as sign language is often the first language for those who are born deaf or become deaf in early life.
People who are deaf have a lower exposure to incidental language learning (for example overheard conversations, background radio and television). This makes it more difficult for a fully nuanced understanding of written English.
For sign language users, English is really a second language with alien grammar and conventions. Therefore, their reading fluency can be similar to that of dyslexic learners or those for who English is an additional language.
Face-to-face teaching involves lots of spoken communication. There can be difficulties including:
- The tutor speaking indistinctly
- Poor room acoustics
- Inappropriate lighting for lip reading support
- Inability for a sign language interpreter to keep up with a fast-paced tutor
- Tutor using technical vocabulary that doesn't exist in British Sign Language
Some teaching environments have poor access to technology such as audio loops, portable wireless microphones/receivers or mainstream teaching technology like interactive whiteboards and data projectors.
Courses that rely heavily on narrated video or audio can pose significant challenges, as well as those relying heavily on dense text resources.
What organisations can do
There is a legal obligation to ensure that no-one is disadvantaged because of a disability. Your organisation must make reasonable anticipatory adjustments to ensure as many people as possible can access their materials and services.
The policies and long term investments made by learning providers can have a significant impact on deaf and hearing impaired learners.
Student requirements should be determined at the point of acceptance and a prioritised strategy for provision agreed. Areas of potential difficulty may include high level text books, audio resources without transcripts or video resources with significant narrative.
Induction loops can be incorporated into key rooms (eg, auditoriums). Portable audio support systems facilitate support for learners anywhere on site.
Investments in wider e-learning can have significant benefits for learners with hearing loss:
- Well populated virtual learning environments allow learners to access resources in their own time. This is helpful for learners with literacy problems who need more time to work through them
- Interactive whiteboards allow lesson and lecture content to be captured visually. Lecture recording allows hearing impaired learners to replay missed information at a higher volume
- Bring your own device (BYOD) policies allow learners to create video and still images for evidence. Accessibility preferences will be pre-set, allowing learners to use the devices more easily
- Installing and supporting accessible content creation tools like Xerte Online Toolkits allow tutors to create visually rich learning resources
This should focus on pragmatic practices that influence daily work. There are three key aspects:
- Awareness of deaf issues and how to communicate effectively with deaf learners
- E-learning confidence - technology enhanced learning can make a significant difference to a tutor's ability to teach inclusively
- Creating deaf-friendly teaching resources and activities
Communication is important. Disabled staff and learners need to know what services are available to them. There is little point in making adjustments if no one knows about them.
What tutors and teachers can do
There are various ways to adapt your activities so that learners with hearing loss can access them.
Start with traditional learning activities that involve dialogue, discussion and questioning – such activities can be difficult for deaf and hearing impaired learners to engage in. They can be made more accessible by:
- Using pictures and visual prompts that reinforce the language and content
- Avoiding unnecessarily complex language in tasks or instructions
- Pre-teaching new vocabulary with signs if required
- Providing glossary summaries for technical terms
- Using technology to facilitate online and asynchronous discussions
- Using interactive whiteboards and VLEs to capture notes from teaching sessions and make available to learners afterwards
- Incorporating activities that allow responses other than writing (eg use of images and videos)
Making learning resources more accessible
Technology can be used to level the playing field. For example, text walls and wikis like TitanPad or PiratePad can be used for instant online discussions. They can be easily embedded into phone-friendly tools such as Xerte, allowing discussion to take place in class using phones to contribute text to a page projected onto the whiteboard. Alternatively, Moodle and other learning platforms support discussion threads.
Presenting evidence in written form can be challenging for deaf learners since they are writing in a second language with an unfamiliar syntax and grammar. Consider how they could capture image and video evidence using their mobile phones.
Many of the educational resources created by teaching staff are text based. For learners with poor literacy skills it is imperative that the meaning of the information is not lost in the medium. Where staff use heading styles in documents and make the resources available online, learners can use inbuilt features such as the navigation pane or outline view.
These views allow the learner to see the entire document navigation ordered by heading level. This provides a very effective way for learners to find their way to the key points in a document.
A wide range of free technologies are available to support more engaging learning resources:
- Mind mapping may provide an effective way to support learners who cope better with visual materials
- Camstudio, Jing (pc) or ExplainEverything (tablet) can be used to create visual resources featuring video and audio
Text dense resources with high language levels may need simplifying, summarising or signposting to alternative resources. Where this process involves more advanced level resources it is essential the task of summarising is completed jointly by teaching and support staff.
Working with interpreters and learners
Working with interpreters requires some planning to give the learner the best experience. For interpreters to work effectively the tutor needs to be clear, precise and moderately paced in delivery. Interpreters also need breaks and these will need factoring into the delivery. There may not be signs for specialist vocabulary so warn about technical terms in advance - they may require additional explanation.
Be aware of subject specific signs. There are several subject specific glossaries like ArtSigns, ScienceSigns, EngineeringSigns and Technical Theatre signs. For a general signing background SignStation is a useful resource and also links to a signing app.
Don't sideline the learner by conversing only with the interpreter. Wherever possible, make resources available in advance (such as handouts and presentations) so the learner can come prepared.
Documents and presentations
Many techniques that are suitable for dyslexic learners work well with deaf learners also:
- Write in plain English and check the readability
- Use inbuilt heading styles in Word for an overview of content in the navigation pane - show learners how to use it
- Use pop up information over images to help contextualise explanations
- Consider using creative e-learning approaches that minimise text heavy resources and activities.
- Add notes to the notes field in PowerPoint to help clarify explanations
- Use animations to explain difficult concepts
For more detailed information on making your documents more accessible, see our guidance on 'institutional practice and accessible technology'
Watch the video for guidance on checking and improving your PowerPoint's accessibility.
For deaf and hearing impaired learners, multimedia can be as much an accessibility benefit as a barrier. The extent to which the deaf/hearing impaired user is disadvantaged by multimedia depends on a number of factors, including:
- The nature of disability
- The nature of the media (accessibility of legacy collections ie, video tapes of television programmes may be limited)
- The nature of the learning objectives
- The primacy of the multimedia resource in delivering the learning objectives
- The manner in which the multimedia will be delivered (for example with or without tutor support)
- Adding accessibility at the start of a multimedia resource (easier than retrofitting it afterwards)
- Using videos and screencasts ensuring that any narrated content is available in text format
- Focussing on the learning objectives of the resource (ie the audio from a video)
- Using audio files (ie, recordings of fieldwork/practical observations, summaries of discussions) which learners can access online
- Providing a short description of the resource's purpose to give focus to the task eg, in a recorded interview, is the objective to find specific information?
- Providing a summary rather than a word-for-word transcript for someone with poor English skills as not every word will be relevant
- Using subtitles where sequence and timing are important (such as explaining a process) especially if tone of voice is important
- Providing inline sign interpretation if you have the skills and resources
The basic check for accessibility to a deaf/hearing impaired user is 'Does it make sense with the speakers switched off?' If not, additional support will be needed in terms of a transcript, subtitling/captioning or inline sign interpretation.
These are likely to exist where:
- The video strand does not convey the full impact of the narrative. For example, a video clip/animation of a four stroke engine may be visually sufficient to show how the pistons work but the audio narrative might also mention fuel types and engine efficiencies
- The audio stream is the key medium and the video is merely supporting eg, dialogue in a play. The body language will convey some of the drama but the dialogue and intonation will convey much more
- The audio creates atmosphere eg, the use of music to heighten tension as a scene develops
In general, reasonable adjustments may include:
- A transcript of the narrative
- Subtitles/transcript with additional key information (eg, ‘(Ironically) 'You approve of me then?')
- Inline sign interpretation
Whether the transcript, captioning or signing needs to be a word-for-word script or a summative description will depend on the learning objectives.
Transcripts provide a text summary of the entire narrative. They have the advantage of being printable but the disadvantage of breaking the synergy between visuals and commentary.
Whether the transcript needs to be a word for word script or a summative description will depend on the learning objectives. A word for word explanation will help learners who want to cut and paste information into their assignment but a précis of the content may be better in other circumstances. For example, a summary of complex arguments or arguments based on complex vocabulary is a reasonable adjustment for deaf/hearing impaired learners.
There are two types of subtitles:
- Open captions - text information embedded in the video stream as subtitles. They have two main advantages:
- They provide synchronicity between the video and the supporting information so the narrative is linked to the reinforcing imagery
- They are embedded in the video stream so they are 'always on' and users do not need to understand how to switch them on
- Closed captions – text information provided as a separate information stream which can be turned on or off by the viewer. The advantages are:
- Users can potentially archive and index video content and search for specific video content within these archives
- They suffer no loss of quality when the encoded video is compressed since the caption is a separate stream
Subtitling to support the use of multimedia is adequate except where:
- The spoken element is complex (eg, clips where the narrative is fast and dense or overlain with emotional subtext) that the relevant information should be provided in hard copy
- Material is needed for repeated or high stakes use where providing additional notes or inline signing will be a richer and more meaningful solution
This requires a video of a signer creating a signed version of the narrative. This video is synchronised with the main video stream and placed as an insert clip.
Only in relatively rare circumstances would inline signing on multimedia be a reasonable adjustment. Formalised video signing is highly skilled requiring high production values and is expensive. For many deaf and hearing impaired learners having many cheap unsigned videos would be more accessible than having very few high quality signed versions.
Different reasonable adjustments relate to differing contexts, for example whether the materials form a major or minor element of a course, and are for repeated independent use or one-off support. Course materials with a long shelf life and high production values may require subtitling, explicit narrative and (if appropriate) video or audio description.
Where multimedia is produced by non-specialists using entry level software and hardware, the best adjustment is to ensure narrative, video and supporting text (eg, subtitles, text summaries, etc.) mutually reinforce the key learning objectives.
Where organisations create in-house multimedia using a specialist team, they should note the relevant web accessibility guidelines. The options available may depend on software used in production and the hardware used in playback. Where the options for accessible production exist, poor production techniques which render multimedia non-adjustable should be regarded as a breach of good practice and a barrier to reasonable adjustment.
Multimedia materials should be designed in such a way that the audio, video and text enrich and reinforce each other, and each fulfils the learning objectives. There are exceptions to this general rule which might present particular problems for deaf/hearing impaired learners, for example when the authorial intention requires:
- Ambiguity between media - where tone of voice says one thing while her face 'says' another
- Bricolage - where the elements are assembled but where the different media do not and are not supposed to correspond
- Tone - where playfulness and irony are important
In these circumstances, one-to-one support, audio description or supporting text notes might be appropriate adjustments.
Although tables present few problems for deaf and hearing impaired learners, there are some adjustments that can be made so that they are as accessible as possible.
A tabular summary is often preferable to a freeform text narrative but can present barriers if they use technical vocabulary or convey abstract concepts. Tables presented in Excel spreadsheets can take advantage of the comments field to add extra explanations.
Converting tables to charts may benefit all learners, particularly those with strongly visual thinking.
These are likely to include:
- Vocabulary and terminology in the table, especially column and row headers. These may need additional links to glossaries
- Tables involving abstract concepts. For example, tables involving gross domestic product (GDP) per head. This issue is not specific to tables but may become more apparent in a table where such information may be a key indicator
- Instructions where a table is used in a class teaching situation (for example, as a stimulus or a debating point). Ensure that instructions are clear and supported in some non-audio way eg, with notes on a handout or on a whiteboard
- Where the table data is particularly dense it makes more sense to plot a graph of the information rather than rely on numerical pattern spotting from the table
Technical and production issues
By having tables available in digital form it is possible to link to additional resources or even have pop-up comments providing additional explanation or hints. This can be achieved using comments in Excel or Word. Hyperlinks can also be used to take learners to supplementary information.
Context of use
Tables are used in a variety of ways – either to support independent learning, to stimulate collaborative learning or to form part of an assessment. The needs of the deaf/hearing impaired learner will vary with the context.
Where a table will be used for collaborative learning, it may be done more effectively online using discussion tools to maximise independence of the learner’s contributions. In a classroom/seminar setting the class will need clear protocols for discussion in order not to exclude the deaf learner.
Graphs and images
They can present barriers due to technical vocabularies and abstract concepts.
In Word documents the pop-up screen tip trick can add extra information over images or vocabulary terms.
What others can do
Encourage the learner to take an active part in providing their own solutions.
If planning is a problem encourage learners to try mindmapping software such as XMind or Freemind. They could also try heading styles and the navigation pane in Word documentsto try out different arrangements of an outline answer.
If grammar, vocabulary or spelling are poor get your learners to try the inbuilt grammar checkers or the inbuilt synonyms function in Word to extend their vocabulary.
Megan’s story – how I became 'student of the year'
"My name is Megan, a student at East Durham College (Houghall campus). I am completing my Level 2 Diploma in animal care and will be moving next year onto the Level 3. I hope to go to university. I have used technology to assist me in my studies at college as I have a severe hearing impairment.
"I hadn’t enjoyed school and had been told I was disruptive. Much of this was due to my hearing impairment and I became frustrated. I don’t think the teachers understood this.
"Things changed at Houghall. I have been encouraged to use the VLE to help me with my studies. All of my work and lessons are on the VLE. The lessons on the VLE contain quizzes so I can check that I have learned correctly. At school it was wrong to use our phones but at college I can. I look up facts, use my phone to record lessons for clarification or if I have missed or misheard something. I then listen to them at home using sound enhancing programmes.
"The ATbar enables me to change the colour of the screen, the style and size of the font to make the text clear and easy to read. I also use sound enhancing to watch videos on the VLE and subtitles also help with this. If I need help tutors are online on an evening and weekend at the same time and we ask questions and get help with the lesson and our assignments."
Nadia's story - using Dynavox technology to communicate
Meet Nadia, a very busy young woman who gives talks, takes part in discussions and promotes the charity 1Voice. Nadia is deaf and can neither hear nor speak. In this video she demonstrates how she uses a combination of personal assistants, sign language and technology (Dynavox) to communicate.