Beyond inclusion: Creating affirming classrooms for d/Deaf and hard-0f-hearing social work students

Elspeth Slayter, MSW, MA, PhD, Salem State University

Cate Thomas, BSW, GradCertLearn&TeachHigherEd, GradDipPA, MPAdmin, PhD, Charles Sturt University

We often have d/Deaf[1] and hard-of-hearing students in our university student bodies, but they can, at times, feel excluded from their educational environments. Therefore, it is important for faculty to create d/Deaf-affirming spaces as opposed to just providing disability inclusion. We need to recognize that hearing access is an implicit requirement for classroom-based learning. Most professors don’t consider how much hearing access matters until they are working with a d/Deaf or hard-of-hearing student. So, what barriers do d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing students face, and how can we best prepare to ameliorate them?

Let’s start with classroom interactions. Once in the classroom, the most obvious issue is the student’s use of an interpreter[2]. One or two interpreters may be present to support the student, depending on the length of the class session. Some students speak American Sign Language, but there are many other languages, such as Black Sign Language and Brazilian Sign Language. Not all interpreters are fluent in all of these languages. Students may have American Sign Language as a second language. Regardless of language, all communications with the student should be directed directly to the student, and not to the interpreter, out of respect for the student. One issue that comes up from time to time is the way that d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing students participate in classroom discussions. As they cannot hear exactly when another student starts or stops talking, they may enter into the conversation in a manner that may feel abrupt. Additionally, d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing students may not engage at all by virtue of space/positioning, because they are not aware of what is occurring in the classroom. This is just part of the territory that needs to be gotten used to. In our experience, d/Deaf and hard-of hearing students often face social problems in the classroom as well, such as lack of connection with other students, disability microaggressions, and active ableism. This is especially problematic during class breaks when they are ignored and in small group work. Professors can model d/Deaf/hard-of-hearing affirming behavior for the rest of the classroom, while honoring the principles of disability etiquette (Pulrang, 2020).

Another central area for fostering a d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing affirming space relates to faculty positioning in the classroom. If d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing people are lip-reading, for example, they need to be able to see the faculty member’s face when they are at the board, or walking around the room. Faculty need to be attentive to this. This may mean the faculty member making the use of technology and streaming themselves to desktops by way of a portable head mounted camera and the use of other affordances.  Videos and screencasts are also an issue. All videos and screencasts used in class need to use closed captions. When recording lectures for the flipped classroom technique, for example, it is important to make using captions a consistent habit. Websites for assignments that use videos may often be inaccessible if they do not provide closed captions or a transcript – this needs to be assessed by the instructor ahead of time so that accommodations can be made. These are vitally important to ensure a positive student experience and engagement on all levels.

In summary, professors should be aware of hearing access barriers and act on them ahead of time, taking initiative in creating d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing affirming spaces, including when guest lecturers are present. Asking d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing students “what has worked for you in the past to make this class work?” is a great place to start. Communicating with Disability Services about how to best accommodate an individual is vital, as is being open to constructive feedback. Central to this work is being self-aware of unintended ableist attitudes and behaviors. d/Deaf pride is a well-documented phenomenon, and many, but not all, are happy not to be ‘fixed’ with cochlear implants. Most importantly, d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing students don’t want to be anyone’s inspiration, they just want to fit in. Please take this information and use it to create a universally-designed classroom for the next time you have a d/Deaf or hard-of-hearing student in your roster! From a structural and systemic viewpoint, universal curricula and pedagogical design should be a common denominator for all students and based on authentic co-design with students.

Pulrang, A. (January 17, 2020). It’s time for a reimagining of disability etiquette. Forbes

[1] According to Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, in Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture (1988): “We use the lowercase deaf when referring to the audiological condition of not hearing, and the uppercase Deaf when referring to a particular group of deaf people who share a language – American Sign Language (ASL) – and a culture.  The members of this group have inherited their sign language, use it as a primary means of communication among themselves, and hold a set of beliefs about themselves and their connection to the larger society.  We distinguish them from, for example, those who find themselves losing their hearing because of illness, trauma or age; although these people share the condition of not hearing, they do not have access to the knowledge, beliefs, and practices that make up the culture of Deaf people.”

[2] Interpreting and translating are related but are different activities. Interpreters work between spoken language and sign language. Translators work from text into sign language.


“School sucks for a blind student:” Creating disability-affirming classrooms for blind students

Ben Chase, BSW Candidate and Elspeth Slayter, MSW, MA, PhD

Recently, Ben, a legally blind social work student with partial visual impairment wrote to Elspeth, saying “school sucks for a blind student at Salem State.” With a 4.0 grade point average and consistently positive attitude towards learning, Ben helped me to learn about the experiences leading to this statement. Honoring the disability justice principle that disabled people are the best experts on their lives, let us learn from Ben’s experience so we can do better at moving beyond creating disability-inclusive spaces, to fostering disability-affirming spaces. Visual access is an implicit requirement for learning. Most educators don’t consider how much visual access matters until they accommodate a blind student. Even then, they tend to underestimate their access needs. So, what barriers do blind students face?

Let’s start with the classroom space. What is the setup of the classroom, are there rolling desks that are never in the same place? Where are students sitting and what desks are taken? How many students are in the room, and who are they? Where is the door? Is there an unspoken culture about everyone sitting in the same seat? Will someone accidentally sit in an awkward place or without socially acceptable proximity to others due to lack of depth perception? Once in the classroom, depending on the student’s vision, there are often social problems, such as lack of connection with other students, disability microaggressions, and active ableism. 

Lighting is also a vital issue for blind students in terms of brightness, color, and placement (overhead vs. lamp). Ben reports “My eyes are light-sensitive, fluorescent overhead lights create a glare. This is why I wear hats on campus. Turning the lights on after they’ve been off for a while is incredibly painful if I’m not aware when it’s going to happen, so I can cover my eyes.”  A number of blind students report eye fatigue after straining/using vision for a while, requiring them to need to take breaks due to the pain they are experiencing. Another student reports “professors never handle this well in my experience, one boldly told me I could just leave if I didn’t feel like being in class versus giving an excuse.”

The colors and writing styles used in classroom presentations also matter in creating affirming spaces vis-à-vis writing on the board (cursive vs. print, light colors) or the presentation of non-accessibly designed slides. All images on slides need to have an ‘alt text’ description (right click the image to add that) so that students can access the image. If you included the image for your students, it was meant to facilitate their learning, so why wouldn’t you want all students to access it? Also, showing videos without audio description enabled often leaves blind students confused because much of the context in the video is accessed visually. Audio descriptions are a similar concept to closed captions except they’re verbal. They only provide brief descriptions of key visual contexts that are essential to know for the storyline. Imagine a 5 minute scene montage with a musical overlay only. There’s no way for blind people to know what’s happening there.

Digital materials and handouts are also areas to consider. For some blind students with accommodations, handouts should be sent to blind students ahead of time so that they can read the documents with their screen readers or screen magnifiers or other assistive technology. They may be unable to do this right in the classroom. Anything requiring handouts may be a problem, such as an attendance sheet, as completely blind people cannot always write, and partially blind people may only read written material with dark markers. One common problem reported on the use of in-class handouts is that faculty take a photo of a handout with their smartphone and email it to their blind students, not understanding that screen readers cannot read the text in a photo. Digital materials, especially PDF files, need to be in the format that screen readers can access, not in photo format. Websites for assignments are often inaccessible or difficult to navigate for screen readers and or another assistive technology. Website navigation issues could result in an assignment taking three times the amount of time intended when a screen reader is involved.

Overall, professors should be aware of visual access barriers and act on them ahead of time, taking initiative in creating disability-affirming spaces, including when guest lecturers are present. This is an aspect of disability etiquette. Asking blind students “what has worked for you in the past?” is a great place to start. Communicating with Disability Services about how to best accommodate an individual is vital, as is being open to constructive feedback. Central to this work is being self-aware of unintended ableist attitudes and behaviors. Disability pride movements are common, and many blind students are happy to be part of disability culture without being ‘fixed.’ Most importantly, blind students don’t want to be anyone’s inspiration, they just want to fit in.

So let’s act on all of this wisdom from our students. As educator Dr. bell hooks once said, “what we do is more important than what we say or what we say we believe.” Let’s do better for blind students, so another student doesn’t come to us saying that school sucks for them at Salem State.