Centering Deaf Students in the Return to School

Published on August 24, 2021

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Summer is coming to a close, but the feeling of uncertainty continues as health recommendations for schools continue to evolve along with COVID. For many, the planning and arrangements for welcoming back students both online and in person for the Fall semester has already begun. NDC continues to receive inquiries, concerns, and reports of unique challenges from DSS offices around the country that are navigating access and accommodations as they create equitable learning environments for deaf students. NDC is here to help you navigate this uncharted territory.

Lauren Kinast, a technical assistance specialist from NDC has been providing support for stakeholders all over the country throughout the pandemic. She is a recent graduate, giving her first-hand experience navigating education during the pandemic, and has some insights, information, and resources to help you prepare for this fall!

As a former Disability Services Professional and college student, here are some things to consider as you prepare your school this fall for deaf students. The main thing is to center the deaf student, it is their journey. Include the student in the planning process, it will support your efforts with coordinating effective communication access. Use our interactive process tools to learn about their communication preferences and subjective experiences. Discuss which accommodations are the right fit for each of their classes; don’t forget to ask about accommodations needed for student services and programs, and any campus activities they plan to participate in.

Proactive planning is key – coordinating service providers (interpreting and speech-to-text professionals), arranging technology, and communicating with faculty and campus offices (IT, Student Services, Campus Events) all takes time. I experienced a delay accessing course materials because faculty was not aware they needed to submit their videos in advance to have them captioned. It is frustrating for deaf students to show up and find they are unable to access classes or services available to all students. Inform faculty ahead of time of a deaf student enrolled in their course, find out their experience with deaf students in their class, see if they have any questions, and check if they need any videos captioned. Do an accessibility audit on your campus with student programs and services, if you notice anything that needs improvements – develop an action plan to enhance access for deaf students to achieve a more equitable college experience.

It is also important to mention that providing quality accommodations is critical. I can speak from experience as a student and through my observations as a DS professional, the level of inclusion and access to the college experience has a significant impact on deaf students’ persistence and better outcomes. NDC has several tools to help your college employ qualified service providers to support the diverse communication preferences of deaf students. Check in with students after the first two weeks, then again periodically to see how their accommodations are working out for them and make any adjustments needed. Maintaining that open communication channel with students is crucial.

If your college will be online this Fall, recognize that deaf students will be spending a lot of time accessing text-based information and reading fatigue is real. We see auto-captions are being used by many colleges, FYI, they are often not accessible and create more confusion and frustrations for deaf students. Time-synced quality captioned media provide a more equitable experience for deaf students. In many cases, providing interpreters to access media is also an effective accommodation.

I hope these suggestions and tips are helpful whether your college will be meeting in-person, online, or taking a hybrid approach. NDC has an FAQ page to quickly find solutions for particular things. An example of a commonly asked question we received from stakeholders is how to provide communication access between deaf and hearing people while wearing masks. One last tip I wanted to share with you that was helpful to me as a student and as a DS professional, join the NDC Listserv. This is a great place to ask other colleges to share their protocols, seek example request forms or policies, and connect with others for additional support. Along with NDC’s Help Team, the Listserv is a fabulous community of support for everyone! Best of luck with planning a successful Fall!

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