What Educators and Administrators can do beyond ADA compliance to support their students

Imagine a world so silent that lips move quickly but hold no meaning. Each room of people is an abyss of incomprehension. People become frustrated, but it’s hard to tell why. This is a taste of what Deaf and hard-of-hearing people experience every day.

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In an educational setting, this is a recipe for disaster. Lack of access leads to students missing essential information in class discussions and lectures, which can lead to low academic achievement.

Research shows that Deaf and hard-of-hearing students typically attain a lower level in their education compared to others: 83% of Deaf students graduated high school as opposed to 89% of hearing students. In college, only 18% of Deaf and hard-of-hearing students graduate with a bachelor’s degree, compared to 33% of hearing students (National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Education, 2017).

Graphic comparing educational attainment between Deaf and Hearing students. For “High School,” the graph shows 83% Deaf and 89% Hearing. For “Some College,” 51% Deaf and 63% Hearing. For “Bachelor’s,” 18% Deaf and 33% Hearing. For “>Bachelor’s,” 7% Deaf and 12% Hearing.
From National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Education

So what can be done to remove these communication barriers? What laws are in place to protect and support Deaf and hard-of-hearing students?

The Americans with Disabilities Act and Education

Influenced by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990 as a way to address systemic discrimination against people with disabilities. One of the most influential outcomes of the ADA was its impact on the way Deaf and hard-of-hearing students experience the American education system.

President Bush sits on a wooden desk and signs the ADA on the South Lawn (the lawn is green with a water fountain in the background). Behind him stands First Lady Barbara Bush. He is surrounded by Evan Kemp, Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Justin Dart, Chairman of the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities; Rev. Harold Wilke, and Swift Parrino, Chairperson, National Council on Disability.
President George H.W. Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the most sweeping affirmation of rights for the disabled in American history at the time, into law. Image from the George Bush Presidential Library.

For Deaf and hard-of-hearing students, the implementation of the ADA brought on a radical transformation of communication accessibility. In order to be ADA-compliant, all public schools, colleges, and universities are required to provide qualified interpreters, real-time captioning, assistive listening devices, and other auxiliary aids and services, to ensure effective communication with deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

In addition, the educational institutions should take action to ensure that Deaf or hard-of-hearing students are able to participate in any educational programs, even if that means modifying the procedure.

So if the ADA is in place, why are Deaf and hard-of-hearing students still having a hard time navigating the classroom?

Beyond ADA-Compliance

ADA compliance forces schools to make sure that their students are able to communicate with their peers and teachers. However, there are several reasons as to why meeting ADA compliance is not enough to support Deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

1. Students aren't willing to disclose their disability

Photo by Living with Hearing Loss

Difference, unfortunately, comes with stigma and shame. Students with disabilities are prone to bullying, signs for which can manifest in their academic performance: absenteeism, lower grades, the inability to concentrate, loss of interest in academic achievement, and increased dropout rates.

Because of the way disabilities are viewed, students are less likely to be forthcoming about their disabilities or challenges in the classroom. Without this knowledge, teachers don’t know they have to provide specific accommodation to ensure their student’s success.

As an educator, it’s important to establish good relationships with students and be aware of signals behind low academic performance. When a student is struggling in the classroom, look for reasons beyond study habits. Initiate the conversation with a student and discuss ways you can provide accommodations.

2. Educators aren’t made aware of possible solutions for their students

Thirty-one years after the ADA passed, the accessibility industry is growing and growing. The abundance and variety of accessibility services and solutions available for different disabilities mean it can be overwhelming to figure out which resource best suits a particular student’s needs.
It’s important to always check in with your student or accessibility resource when figuring out a communication access solution. Every person has a different way of communicating.

For the person who grew up in a signing environment, an American Sign Language interpreter with live captions or post-class notes may be the best accessibility prescription. However, for another student who grew up in an oral or speaking environment, real-time, highly-accurate captions, like Ava, are better to follow along in class.

Make sure you are following the student’s lead when setting up the classroom accommodations. Be proactive about accessing their needs, particularly through their Individualized Educational Plan. Continuously gauge a student’s feedback to ensure that it’s working and be patient as you both navigate the classroom together.

3. The quality of the service is not good enough for true access

Image of Obi Wan Kenobi (from the original Star Wars) meme looking confused. He is standing against a white background with a light tan tunic and dark brown cardigan. The text caption “[visible confusion]” shows in yellow font.
When students don’t have adequate accommodations, it can a challenge to follow along and many struggle with perceptual confusion.

Under the ADA, ASL interpreters and closed captions are considered “reasonable accommodations.” However, this doesn’t specify any particular requirements around certifications, upkeeping training, cultural competence, accuracy, or speaker identification, which can present a plethora of issues for students learning and engagement.

When ASL interpreters are not adequately trained, this can lead to extreme frustration for Deaf and Hard-of-hearing students who depend on these interpreters to relay information. For example, when interpreters aren’t properly trained or prepped for the subject matter, that leaves an opportunity for an inadequate relay of information and ultimately confusion. When students can’t rely on accessibility measures, that’s when we lose their engagement.

In addition to adequate certification and upkeeping training, it’s critical that there’s active collaboration with the interpreters so that they are prepared for each class. What that looks like is providing the syllabus, presentations, and important keywords and concepts in advance.


Real-time captioning is becoming more and more popular as an accessibility solution for all folks along the Deaf and Hard-of-hearing spectrum, signing and not-signing alike. However, providing captions should be done with intention- there are some important factors to consider to ensure that the captions are effective for comprehension.

Speed and accuracy are especially important when it comes to real-time captions in order for students to closely follow lectures or truly take part in classroom discussions. If the transcript is inaccurate, it will cause confusion and the inability to follow along in the discussion. Accuracy can depend on a few different things:

  • quality of the artificial intelligence (for automated real-time captions)
  • speed of the human transcriptionist (for hybrid solutions, such as Ava Scribe)
  • the audio of the environment (sound pollution)
  • the speech demeanor of the person speaking (mumbling and accents)
  • internet connection

With regard to the speed of captions, the least amount of lag is ideal. Why? Imagine always being a few seconds behind the conversation. That can mean missing out on the punch line of a joke or being slow to answer a direct question. Too much lag can render a student unable to participate in the class discussion.

When there are intentional, active communication efforts (as opposed to passive communication), lag is inevitable, whether it’s from an interpreter, machine, or transcriptionist. Processing sound to sign language or text takes time and it’s important to be aware of this lag and account for that in your communication style (yes, that means there can be awkward pauses, but that’s okay!).


Last year, a teacher from Oxnard College wasn’t properly equipped to understand how interpreters work and how to best support their Deaf student. They inappropriately publicly berated this student in their Zoom class for being slow to respond, which was filmed on TikTok and became viral.

 
Deaf influencer, Rikki Pointer, shares her insights on the situation at Oxnard College.
As an educator, it’s important to be aware of all of these factors and provide the best environment possible so the accessibility solution works effectively for your student’s success.

 

4. Ad-hoc situations aren’t covered in accommodations

Image of a group of 4 students sitting with their legs crossed, chatting with each other on the grass. From left to right: young, masculine-presenting Black person with a cyan colored shirt, jeans, and tan shoes; young, feminine-presenting Black person with a black headband and coral T-shirt; young, masculine-presenting Black person with a dark blue shirt, jeans, and black shoes; young, feminine-presenting Black person with teal T-shirt, jeans, and white shoes, holding a laptop on her lap.
Students chatting on the grass during a break

When accessibility solutions are provided for Deaf and hard-of-hearing students, it’s usually within the context of the classroom. But what happens outside of the classroom during lunch breaks, field trips, school assemblies, after-school programs, or sports activities? How do you ensure that students have access truly 24/7?

Sometimes it can be expensive or awkward to have an interpreter follow a student around through their day. Some students actually don’t prefer this for fear of being bullied. One of the perks of a real-time automated captioning mobile app like Ava is that it is portable and doesn’t require another human to be present. Almost instantly, a student can open the Ava app and get captions immediately for any situation.

Be sure the accommodation solutions you suggest provide enough flexibility to be useful in many situations and form factors.

It’s important that educational institutions provide every student the best education and access, not just to check off a box for ADA compliance, but for students' well-being and prospects for the future. Intentional and effective efforts for students’ accessibility can make all the difference.

What are your strategies for supporting your student?

 

Post by Saria Webb and Kirsten Fargas
May 20, 2022

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