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Most students who are born with serious hearing impairments are identified as infants or when they are very young. By the time they enter the general education classroom, they’ve got an I.E.P with accommodations., assistance as needed, and a support system in place.

However, if you’re teaching a student with hearing impairments or deafness for the first time, you will have adjustments to make, especially if you’ve never been part of the deaf and hard of hearing community already.

As with all students, those with hearing differences are varied and have particular needs. Students around the country may attend state schools specifically designed for them where they learn full-time in their first language, but there are some places that don’t have schools for the deaf or hard of hearing. 

Alternatively, families can deny services. Some students who are hard of hearing don’t qualify for any or many services. 

Some will need added assistance while others won’t need you to change much of anything to accommodate them.

Of course, as with hearing students,  confirm any changes you may want to make to be sure they fit the specific needs of your student and follow all I.E.P.s and accommodations mandated and/or recommended. 

Understanding ASL (American Sign Language) vs. English

Deaf and hard of hearing students are generally really closer in need to ELL or ESL students than your typical self-contained or integrated special education student. Remember when dealing with these students that the special ed. umbrella is wide, and it encompasses anyone who does not qualify as being part of one very narrowly-defined type of student. Anyone with any sort of “difference” is classified as “special”.

In addition, being deaf or hard of hearing does not mean that they have any other disorders, differences, or needs. It doesn’t rule that out, either, but it is not appropriate to assume that these students are mentally challenged, difficult, or in any other way dissimilar to all your other students.

However, it’s important to understand that students who speak in ASL do not necessarily speak English.

First, there are many different versions of sign language. For nearly every language in the world, there exists at least one accompanying sign language. For the most used languages, there are many types of sign language, and each type is varied by region and community.

Much like we have accents and dialect-specific phrases that differ from country to country, state to state, and within some inner-state regions, so does sign language.

There are three most recognized types of sign language used in the United States: ASL (American Sign Language), PSE (Pidgin Sign Language), and SEE (Signed Exact English). The most used and preferred type among the deaf community is ASL. 

Regardless of common usage, some school districts still insist on using SEE, and there’s currently some spark of serious debate because although SEE mimics English spelling, syntax, and phrases, many say it strips ASL of its core language attributes, robbing those in the deaf community of their first language and their autonomy.

There is a version of ASL that is called ASL Contact Sign that mixes the signs of ASL with the syntax and structure of English. This is the approach many schools use.

It’s important to know what your district uses, and what your student and anyone assisting your student are using.

Tips from the Pros

If your student speaks ASL, you must think of them as a second language learner. They will not use spelling, syntax, or grammar the same way as your hearing students do, but they are learning, just as the other students are learning.

They are just as capable as all of your other students. They read, write, and can (and will) do the same assignments as your other students, although they may need it explained in their own language first.

ASL is not a written language because it is a visually and spatially-based language. In comparison, English is an auditory and linear language with its own written component. 

If they are accustomed to lip reading, you may be able to speak to them directly just as you would any other student. If there is a need, it’s never for you to speak louder (a lot of people make that mistake). It doesn’t hurt to slow down a bit, though, and use good social cues so they can let you know if they understand you or if you need to slow down a little more.

Many deaf and hard of hearing students you will see in the general education setting will be accompanied by an interpreter and actually attend most core classes in their own language. Your district may have one of these programs called Regional Day School Programs for the Deaf (or RDSPD). These programs are for children whose ages range from under three to high-school-aged.

If you welcome an interpreter into your classroom, remember that this person is a fellow teacher and colleague. Please treat them as such. Don’t ask them to teach you ASL five minutes before class starts - remember, it’s another language. It’s not a dance, an act, or something cute to do. 

This other teacher is not there to watch your class, be your aid, or run copies for you. They are present to translate your language into the student’s first language.

Whether you have an interpreter accompanying your student or not, you should involve the student in your class just as you do all of the other students. They want to see your face, they want you to call on them (if they aren’t shy), they want to answer questions, and they want to participate.

Please don’t hesitate to recognize them as an important part of your classroom community.

Thanks to Lexi Caruso, an RDSPD educator at Corsicana ISD, for her assistance in the research for this article

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