Assistive Technology and Teachers of Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Students

October 1, 2010 Rouzbeh Ghahreman

Technology and teamwork work hand-in-hand to broaden students’ and teachers’ lives

Hearing loss is the sixth most common chronic condition in the United States, where it affects two to four of every 1,000 people (Pleis and Lethbridge-Cejku 2006). According to the Canadian Association of the Deaf (CAD), “no fully credible census of Deaf, Deafened, and Hard of Hearing people has ever been conducted in Canada,” but according to CAD estimates, in 2006, there were “approximately 310,000 profoundly Deaf and Deafened Canadians and possibly 2.8 million Hard of Hearing Canadians” (CAD 2007).

It is probable, therefore, that at least a few times in their career, teachers will have students in their classes for whom deafness or hearing loss is a fact of life. In these instances, assistive technology (AT)[1] and effective teamwork can make all the difference between a frustrating, negative experience and a rewarding and positive one.  

Many good sources of information are available on the causes and consequences of hearing loss (Dugan 1997; Myers 2000; Scheetz 2001). Hearing loss can occur in only one ear, thereby affecting perception of auditory distance and direction, or it can occur in both ears. In either case, it can result from damage to any part of the ear (outer, middle or inner) or from injury to relevant nerves or brain areas. Hearing loss is generally described as mild, moderate, severe or profound, depending on how well a person can hear the intensities or frequencies most associated with speech. Students who are culturally deaf[2] will likely have had different educational and social experiences from people who are hard of hearing. Distinctions can be made between these people according to whether they became deaf before or after full acquisition of speech, and whether they were educated in schools for the deaf or in mainstream schools with accommodations. In the US, the 1990 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is designed to ensure that children with disabilities receive the best education possible and are provided with essential accommodations and devices for this to occur. Assistance available to students with hearing loss under IDEA includes such services as extracurricular language and auditory training, academic support and counselling for personal development, an interpreter for students who use manual communication, favourable seating in the classroom to facilitate speech reading, captioned films/videos, amplification systems and the assistance of a note taker. The US Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA)), which followed in 2004, explicitly supported the role of AT as an integral and necessary component of education for all students with disabilities.

Under laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) of 2005, which, incidentally, made Ontario the first jurisdiction in Canada to develop, implement and enforce mandatory accessibility standards, private and public schools, colleges and universities must ensure that their programs and services are accessible to and usable by people with disabilities, including deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Consequently, when a deaf child enters the special education system, his or her individual education program (IEP) must document that AT services and devices have been considered. With IDEIA or equivalent provisions in place, it would appear that a solid basis was established for deaf or hard-of-hearing students to receive AT services in public schools, from early intervention through graduation from high school. Several studies have been undertaken to monitor trends in this area (Bowe 2002; Weiserbs 2000; Zazove, Meador, Derry, Gorenflo, Burdick and Saunders 2004). These studies concluded that AT use is increasing in the deaf population, and AT use is beginning at an early age. Ideally, deaf students will graduate from public schools with AT experiences that have prepared them for a successful university career. There has been no research on the perspectives of public schools teachers on and their experiences of AT usage by deaf and hard-of-hearing students in their classes.

Contending with a hearing loss adds yet another stressor to students’ personal, social and academic life. Teachers will have no trouble understanding this in a general way, but they will have to learn and allow for its specific implications when a deaf/hard-of-hearing student is striving to follow and participate in class interactions, perhaps through the use of such AT as a headphone, FM transmitter, speech-to-text system or other device. While it pleases teachers of a mainstream class when deaf/hard-of-hearing students have AT, teachers must still cultivate respect for the time and divided attention required to use AT effectively. This is where teamwork comes into the picture. In fact, if all those involved (teachers, hearing students, deaf/hard-of-hearing students and sign-language interpreters) can be taught teamwork, so much the better. Literature on the relationship between deaf students and their interpreters always emphasizes teamwork (Luckner and Muir 2001). Interpreters facilitate communication between deaf students and their hearing teachers and hearing peers (Antia and Kreimeyer 2001) and play an important role in the academic success of students who are deaf (Luckner and Muir 2001) and in the self-perceived success of these students’ teachers. Therefore, teachers should be constantly aware of the interpreter’s presence and of his or her part in the teacher–student dialogue. Teamwork is especially important when a deaf/hard-of-hearing student is trying to coordinate that most deadly of concurrent-information triads: teacher speech, interpreter signing and PowerPoint slides.

Students have emphasized the importance of AT in the socialization processes. This is encouraging, because research has suggested that deaf and hearing students do not socialize well together (Antia and Kreimeyer 1996). Weiserbs (2000) found that AT has a positive influence on the relationship between deaf students and their hearing peers, and cites such programs as Sidekick, for sending e-mails, and instant messaging (IM) for communicating in social settings. A more recent study (in which I participated as a teacher and in which deaf/hard-of-hearing students in two Canadian schools and their parents were provided with IM devices) found that e-mails and instant messaging increased students’ independence. There is freedom in being able to communicate clearly and have others understand and reciprocate that communication in a timely manner (Akamatsu, Mayer and Farrelly 2006). Parents wrote to thank us for helping their deaf/hard-of-hearing children become more confident in their skills. Furthermore, IM eliminated some safety concerns about fire alarms and emergency procedures in schools. It helps teachers communicate more fully and comfortably with their deaf/hard-of-hearing students and, in turn, these students with them. 

The technology and teamwork discussed in this article can also help teachers who are deaf/hard-of-hearing or who have other special needs to broaden the scope of their professional and personal lives.


Akamatsu, T., C. Mayer and S. Farrelly. 2006. “An Investigation of Two-Way Text Messaging Use with Deaf Students at the Secondary Level.” Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 11, no. 1, 120–31.

Antia, S.D. and K.H. Kreimeyer. 1996. “Social Interactions and Acceptance of Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing Children and Their Peers: A Comparison of Social-Skills and Familiarity-Based Interventions.” Volta Review, 98, 157–80.

-----. 2001. “The Role of Interpreters in Inclusive Classrooms.” American Annals of the Deaf, 146, 355–65.

Bowe, F.G. 2002. “Deaf and Hard of Hearing Americans’ Instant Messaging and E-mail Use: A National Survey.” American Annals of the Deaf, 147, no. 4, 6–10.

Canadian Association of the Deaf. 2007. Statistics on Deaf Canadians. Available online at (accessed August 25, 2010).

Dugan, M.B. 1997. Keys to Living with Hearing Loss. Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s Educational Series.

Luckner, J. L., and S. Muir. 2001. “Successful Students Who Are Deaf in General Education Settings.” American Annals of the Deaf, 146, 435–46.

Myers, D. G. 2000. A Quiet World: Living with Hearing Loss. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Pleis, J. R., and M. Lethbridge-Cejku. 2006. Summary Health Statistics for U.S. Adults: National Health Interview Survey, 2005. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (Vital Health Statistics, Series 10). Available online at (accessed August 25, 2010).

Scheetz, N. A. 2001. Orientation to Deafness (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon. 

Weiserbs, B. 2000. “Social and Academic Integration Using E-Mail Between Children With and Without Hearing Impairments.” Computers in the Schools, 16, 29–44.

Zazove, P., H. E. Meador, H. A. Derry, D. W. Gorenflo, S. W. Burdick and E. W. Saunders. 2004. “Deaf Persons and Computer Use.” American Annals of the Deaf, 148, 376–84.


Rouzbeh Ghahreman is a PhD student in Special Education at the University of Alberta.



[1] Assistive more accurately reflects the active and reciprocal nature of the assisted person’s role in his or her use of technological devices and/or personal services than does the more traditional term adaptive, which for some implies passivity or surrender.

[2] The term culturally deaf describes a person who has had no or little access to a sense of hearing and whose first language was some form of signing. When the word deaf is used in this broadly linguistic or cultural sense, it is usually capitalized (Deaf) to indicate that it is on a par with any other linguistic or cultural designation (for example, German, Spanish, Aboriginal) because it refers to a similar commonality of language and/or customs. 

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