May 2016 Fit to Learn

Principals are used to managing a million things at once—handling the needs of teachers, administra-tors, the district, parents, and the curriculum—though students always remain their biggest investment. But what about students who might need a little extra help? How can principals best work to manage the specific needs of students who are deaf or hard of hearing?

It’s important for a principal to be familiar with all of the specific needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Such students will need an interpreter for all of their classes, as well as one for any extra­curricular or after-school activities, such as sports or academic clubs. While this takes extra effort and resources, you never want a student to feel discouraged from being involved or to miss out on any special opportunities.

Part of catering to deaf and hard-of-hearing students means being mindful of other special circumstances the students might face as well, such as needing modified tests and/or additional testing time—if deemed necessary at their 504 and/or Admission, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) meeting. It is also important to ensure the student will have access to tutoring with an interpreter.It’s key that these students feel a part of the school and be incorporated into every aspect of school culture; they should have the same opportunities as hearing students. Additionally, principals should take into consideration whether any student has a deaf or hard-of-hearing parent. If so, accommodations should be offered with interpreters available at parent-teacher nights, PTA meetings, and any other school event that the parent is interested in attending.

It’s important for principals, teachers, and anyone involved in the education of deaf children to understand there is more involved than just the fact that the child does not hear. Ninety percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents. Language acquisition for deaf children is very different from that of hearing children, and even more so for deaf children with hearing parents. For hearing children with hearing parents, and deaf children with deaf parents, language is acquired naturally. However, for deaf children born to hearing parents, language isn’t acquired naturally—it must be learned. Most often the only opportunity these students have to learn their language is at school through the interpreter, who is their “language model.” The student is bilingual—as American Sign Language (ASL) is a true language—and in some cases the child may be trilingual, if the family speaks another language.

Having worked with deaf and hard-of-hearing students in the education field for the last 25 years, I think it’s best when principals reach out to the students to make them feel truly wanted in every aspect of the school community. It’s great when principals go above and beyond and learn a few sign language phrases to communicate with these students.

Build on a Feeling of Inclusion

Principals at many schools with just one or a handful of deaf students can start an after-school sign language club to encourage other students to communicate with the deaf or hard-of-hearing students. It’s easy enough to arrange an hour once a week after school for an interpreter to teach students, as well as teachers, a few popular and common words in sign language. Having other students in the deaf student’s class learning even just a few basic phrases to communicate can really help new friendships flourish for all students.

Another important consideration is the type of classroom that the student is in, particularly for hard-of-hearing students who wear hearing aids. Certain types of rooms absorb sound better. Carpeted rooms with fewer windows are ideal. But a room with a lot of windows, metal desks, and hardwood floors can have sound bouncing all around, making it hard for the student to distinguish where sound is coming from (these materials magnify the sound to hearing aids). Additionally, portable classrooms are not conducive to proper sound acoustics, especially with loud air-conditioning units. Hearing aids magnify the sound from the unit, making it impossible for the hard-of-hearing students to hear or understand the teacher’s and other students’ voices.

Lighting and window placement should also be considered. For instance, you don’t want to have a deaf student looking at an interpreter standing in front of lots of windows, as there will be glare during certain times of the day. You also want to make sure the school’s smoke and fire alarms offer flashers in the classrooms, halls, and bathrooms.

When considering placement for these students, it’s important to not cluster deaf students together. Forcing students to take the same classes (whether or not they are at the same level), not allowing them to take co-op classes, or encouraging them to take the same extracurricular activities in order to use as few interpreters as necessary is the opposite of best practice. It takes away that child’s right to the same quality of education that is offered to every hearing student. The students want to feel like their own individual person, and it’s crucial that they have the same opportunities as everyone else.

What’s most essential with all of these suggestions and tips is that principals make sure that deaf and hard-of-hearing students at their schools have all of the same rights and abilities as hearing students. By simply keeping some of these suggestions in mind, and always thinking through what else you can do to ensure equality of education, you can make a difference to these students. The most successful principals I’ve known have made a point to connect with their students, greeting them by name on a daily basis—in their language!

Marilyn L. Weber is the president and CEO of Deaf Interpreter Services in San Antonio, TX.

Sidebar: Making It Work

Creating a Spirit of Inclusion

It’s important for principals to make sure that deaf and hard-of-hearing students are just as much a part of the school as hearing students. There are several ways to make this happen, including:

Have interpreters available. Have interpreters available for all after-school extracurricular activities, such as sports and clubs.

Start a sign language club. Start a sign language club so students and teachers can learn popular words and phrases to communicate with deaf students.

Remind stakeholders. Remind stakeholders that deaf students who know American Sign Language are bilingual—it’s considered to be its own language.

Stay informed. Stay informed about deaf culture to better understand these students.