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Sensory: Deaf and Hard of Hearing

Typically, students who are deaf or hard of hearing are identified as needing special education and related services under the Opens new windowIndividuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The following definitions of deafness and hearing impairment are excerpted from the IDEA:

Deafness means a hearing impairment that is so severe that the child is impaired in processing linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, that adversely affects a child's educational performance (34 C.F.R. §300.8(c)(3)).

Hearing impairment means an impairment in hearing, whether permanent or fluctuating, that adversely affects a child's educational performance but that is not included under the definition of deafness in this section (34 C.F.R. §300.8(c)(5)).

AIM Center Brief: The Provision of AIM to Students who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

This brief discusses two issues associated with the provision of accessible instructional materials (AIM) to students who are deaf or hard of hearing. The first section describes the physical basis of reading challenges experienced by many students who are deaf or hard of hearing. The second section focuses on research pertaining to the use of sign language representations in conjunction with print and digital text for this population of students.

Hearing loss can vary by age of onset, type of hearing loss, degree or severity of loss, and the configuration or frequency and pitch of loss. Thus the needs of students with hearing loss can vary widely, and each student’s unique needs must be taken into consideration carefully when determining educational planning. With appropriate supports, services, and accommodations, more and more students are able to participate in classroom activities and achieve academically.

As a part of developing an individual education program (IEP), a student's IEP team takes into consideration their student’s audiological information and needs, settings, and tasks to be performed in determining if accessible instructional materials and/or assistive technology are needed and, if so, what is needed specifically.

Students who have hearing impairments are typically able to see and manipulate printed instructional materials; thus, they are not commonly considered to have a print disability.

For some students who are hard of hearing, the provision of specialized formats (such as audio and/or digital text) with the use of appropriate technology may be needed to improve access to curricular materials. Although these methods and materials may not be useful for students who are deaf, they may be particularly beneficial for those with mild to moderate losses in hearing in developing literacy skills. Students who are hard of hearing often do not hear all the speech sounds; and background noises can be particularly distracting, resulting in failure to understand, fatigue, and tension. Thus, using technology with adjustable controls and noise-cancelling earphones to deliver content to these students may be exactly what is needed as an accommodation.

Audio formats deliver content as speech to which a student listens via a computer or other device(s), with audio output as recorded human voice or synthesized electronic speech. There are many ways in which audio output can be adjusted, whether the speech is recorded human voice or synthesized. Adjustments can be made in pitch, volume, and speed at which audio is played. Both recorded human voice and synthetic text-to-speech may be set to faster or slower playback.

However, severe to profound deafness limits the efficient and effective use of the sound-based essential components of reading. The National Reading Panel Report (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development [NICHD], 2000) summarized several decades of scientific research that clearly shows effective reading instruction addresses five critical areas:

  • Phonemic awareness
  • Phonics
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension

These five areas were incorporated into the No Child Left Behind Act and the Reading First initiative as essential components of effective reading instruction.

The ability to efficiently use phonemic awareness and phonics is greatly impaired in readers with severe to profound deafness due to their handicap and thus can be considered a severe print disability.

The functional implications of deafness and hearing loss, particularly when the onset of the hearing loss occurs at an early age, can negatively impact language development, reading, writing, comprehension, and other academic skills. Despite nationwide efforts to increase the achievement of students who are deaf or hard of hearing, they continue to lag behind their general education peers in reading and in achievement scores. Half of deaf adults read at or below the 4th grade level and only 15% read at the 7th grade level or above. Early detection and intervention are essential so that they have the resources and supports needed to enhance their development of language, academic, social, and emotional skills.

For severe to profoundly deaf students who use sign language, a major obstacle to reading English is the inability to use sound-based reading skills (phonics and phonemic awareness) to decode a word. Reading for these students is more similar to a person reading Chinese symbols. Essentially every word for these deaf readers is a sight word. That, combined with the lack of signed and printed vocabulary due to limited interactions with fluent signers, results in the lag in the reading ability of these deaf individuals. The availability of a text-to-sign translation has proven effective in providing signers with accessible text-based information. Such accessible materials are still rare, however.

Digital text format is an electronic format that can be delivered via a computer or other device(s). Digital text is malleable and can be easily transformed in many different ways depending upon student needs and technology being used to deliver the content. To accommodate the needs and preferences of a user, various features of the technology used which controls output or how content is presented can be manipulated (such as text size, fonts, colors, contrast, highlighting, and use of text-to-speech). The digital text format may contain both audio and visual output—which can be presented separately or simultaneously—depending upon the way content is developed and the technology that is being used to access it. Digital text can be formatted to allow for text-to-sign features that can enhance reading comprehension of deaf readers.

An important factor in considering the need, selection, and use of accessible instructional materials is the functional effect of a student's disability on their educational performance—not a student's disability category or medical diagnosis. Decisions are to be made based on each student’s unique needs, the environments in which print will be accessed, and the nature of tasks a student needs to accomplish. Based on a variety of factors—including environments and tasks—more than one format may be needed for the same student. Once a decision-making team has selected the format(s) that a student will need, their team determines what technology; support services; training for the student, educators, and family; instructional teaching strategies; and accommodations may be required for successful use of accessible materials. When specialized formats and supports for use are well-matched to a student’s individual needs and abilities, the result can mean improved academic achievement.

For detailed information about specialized formats and a student-centered decision-making process, refer to the AIM Navigator. The AIM Navigator is an interactive, online tool that facilitates the process of decision-making around accessible instructional materials for an individual student. The four major decision points in the process include 1) determination of need, 2) selection of format(s), 3) acquisition of format(s), and 4) selection of supports for use. The AIM Navigator also includes a robust set of guiding questions and useful references and resources specifically related to each decision point. Different levels of support scaffolds are built-in so that teams can access information at the level needed to assist them in making informed, accurate decisions.

The use of standard media presentations often incorporated in classroom instruction presents multiple challenges to students with hearing impairments; however, media such as videos, television, movies, etc. can be made accessible by the use of captioning and provision of transcripts. Although IDEA mandates regarding the provision of accessible instructional materials pertain only to print-based instructional materials, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act provide broader rights to effective communication.

Learn more about video captioning on the AIM Center's Accessible Media: Video page.

General Resources for Deaf and Hard of Hearing


Opens new windowNational Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY)—Disability Specific Fact Sheets—Deafness and Hard of Hearing Fact Sheet #3

Opens new windowSecondary School Experiences and Academic Performance of Students with Hearing Impairments—Facts from NLTS2 (PDF format)

State Programs Search

Opens new windowNational Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY)—State Organization—Search by State

National Organization Search

Opens new windowFamily Center on Technology and Disability—Search Organizations

Opens new windowNational Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY)—National Organization Gateway

National Organizations and Resources

Opens new windowAmerican Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)—Hearing and Balance

Opens new windowEarly Periodic Screening, Diagnosis, and Treatment (EPSDT) Program

Opens new windowLearning through Listening

Opens new windowNational Association for the Deaf (NAD)

Opens new windowWebAIM: Auditory Disabilities

Opens new windowThe Center for Accessible Technology in Sign (CATS)

Opens new windowVisual language Visual Learning center (VL2)

Opens new windowHarris Communication


Last Updated: 02/11/2014

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