Information for Instructors

Working with Students who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing
Some of our students are deaf or hard of hearing. Here’s some information about ASL, sign language interpreters, and best classroom practices for working with these students.

What’s the difference between “deaf” and “hard of hearing?”

  • Deaf: A condition in which perceivable sounds (including speech) have no meaning for ordinary life purposes.
  • Hard of Hearing: A condition in which the sense of hearing is defective but functional for ordinary for life purposes. Most hard of hearing people can understand some speech sounds (usually with the help of a hearing aid).

Note: Terms such as “deaf and dumb” or “deaf mute” are considered offensive to deaf people.

How else do these students differ?

Students who are deaf or hard of hearing are like all other students in that some are very successful in college and some are not. Their intelligence and communication skills are comparable to the normal distribution of the hearing population. Factors such as personality, family environment, age of onset, degree of hearing loss, etc., play a key role in the kind of communication the student uses. Also, not every student with the same disability will receive the same accommodation. Accommodations must be tailored to the individual.

What is American Sign Language?

American Sign Language (ASL) is a vehicle that enables signers to communicate their thoughts, ideas, and feelings through a gestural/visual modality. In contrast, English, is a vehicle that permits speakers to communicate their thoughts, ideas, and feelings through the speech/auditory pathway. English and ASL are not different expressions of the same language. ASL contains phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax and pragmatics just like spoken languages. It’s a visual language expressed with combinations of hand shapes, palm orientations, movements of the hands, arms and body, and facial expressions.

Note: ASL is not a universal sign language. Different sign languages are used in different countries or regions. For example, British Sign Language (BSL) differs notably from American Sign Language.

What do I need to know about ASL interpreters?

An ASL interpreter is a person who interprets between ASL and English. The source language and target language depend on who is “speaking.” For example, interpreters may interpret from English to ASL-usually from you to the deaf student-or ASL to English-from the deaf student to you and the class. An interpreter is accessible to all parties in a classroom setting.

Note: Be aware of “process time,” which is the time required to process information into another language. Recognize that there is a processing time of 5-10 seconds between what you say and the time that an interpreter signs the material to students. This has significant implications, particularly in an interactive classroom. If you ask for class participation (to answer questions, state opinions, give examples, etc.) allow the necessary time for your statement to be interpreted before calling on a student. This will provide an equal opportunity for participation.

What about accommodations?
Students who are deaf or hard of hearing, like other students with disabilities, must provide instructors with an Accommodation Request Form if they are requesting any accommodations beyond the use of a sign language interpreter. If a deaf student approaches you about accommodations, refer him or her to Disability Services. Accommodations are never “automatic” and are always provided on a case by case basis.

For example, because it is very difficult to watch an interpreter and take notes at the same time, a deaf or hard of hearing student may need an individual to take notes for him/her. Upon presentation by the student of an Accommodation Request Form, a professor may ask the class for a volunteer note taker.

Top Ten ‘Best Practices’ When Working with Students who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

  1. When addressing a deaf or hard of hearing student, speak directly to him/her. Avoid saying “Tell him . . .” or “Ask her . . .” This is particularly important if you encourage class discussion and student participation because it establishes a feeling of direct communication.
  2. Direct all questions regarding the student’s progress or grade to the student. Speak naturally and clearly. There is no need to exaggerate lip movements or volume. Of course, the interpreter will be more than happy to interpret for you if you feel the need to speak with the student, and all information will be confidential.
  3. Speaking with your back to the student while writing on the chalkboard is especially problematic. An overhead is often a good alternative. Since vision is a deaf person’s primary channel for receiving information, visual aids are a tremendous help.
  4. During group discussions encourage and remind students not to talk over each other, and to allow a slight pause before the next speaker begins. Check to see if the interpreter has completed each individual’s message before proceeding to the next comment.
  5. In situations where a video will be shown, contact Media Services for assistance with closed captioning. Keep in mind, light levels need to be bright enough in the classroom so the deaf or hard of hearing student can see what the interpreter is signing.
  6. Treat students equally. When students register for your class they are all there to learn. You are not required or expected to lower your academic standards for students with disabilities. It is best to maintain high expectations. However, in some cases the instructor and student may need to work together to find alternate methods of accomplishing required tasks.
  7. Have Power Point and lecture notes available to the student(s) before class. Providing these materials before class makes it easier for deaf and hard of hearing students to prepare for class and as importantly provides a context for class discussions. Make sure the interpreter has access to these materials too – either through a hard copy or web distribution.
  8. While using Power Point slides, overheads, or other similar material, give students time to read them before moving on. This pause allows students to absorb information before you begin to explain the content and will help minimize later confusion. Allow ample time for deaf and hard of hearing students to read presented media before you begin to speak.
  9. Don’t use words like “this” and “that” as referents in the class or lab. Instead use proper names including technical terminology when referencing items in this fashion, for example: “Move the small beaker to the table by the window.” Allow time for the student(s) and interpreter to reference the item or location so that the proper association is made. When you are more specific it helps all students, hearing or deaf, to understand.
  10. If you sense that the interpreter is struggling with classroom content, talk with him/her after class; this communication will foster better access for the students. Allow the interpreter freedom to ask questions or bring up concerns.

* Information provided by Class Act (, a project of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Rochester Institute of Technology (NTID/RIT), Rochester, New York.