The number of Americans with a master’s degree is on the rise. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 13.1% of American adults have an advanced degree—up from 8.6% two decades ago. But if you’re a deaf adult with a master’s degree, you’re in a much smaller group. The National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes reports that 6.6% of deaf adults have a master’s degree. This gap is wider than if you compared the deaf and hearing adults who have an associate or bachelor’s degree, providing strong evidence that graduate students who are hearing impaired face challenges in the classroom.
Online master’s degree programs might provide an answer. Unlike a traditional classroom, remote learning can give hearing impaired students the same learning experiences as their hearing peers. Asynchronous classes, self-paced curricula, and the ability to take in lecture material using closed captions or special headphones decrease barriers and increase engagement with the content.
Despite these benefits, challenges remain. In this guide, we’ll touch on some of the hurdles that may exist in online master’s degree programs and how deaf or hard of hearing students can overcome them. We’ll also identify resources that students with hearing impairments can use to maximize their learning potential.
Unique Challenges that Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students Face in College
Whether a student attends class virtually or in a physical classroom, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, along with state laws and regulations, require almost all postsecondary schools to accommodate the needs of disabled students. But often, these accommodations aren’t enough to put hearing impaired students on the same playing field as their peers. On campus, deaf and hard of hearing students face difficulties getting the accommodations they need. For example, setting up a wireless microphone and audio transmission system in a classroom could be more expensive and time consuming than adding captions to a pre-recorded online video lecture.
Even if schools provide the accommodations as requested, built-in limitations may still make it harder for a deaf student to learn the material. Let’s look at some of the special challenges hearing impaired students encounter in a typical classroom.
Inability to hear lectures or educational videos well enough to take notes
This could be one of the hardest parts of attending in-person classes as a student with limited hearing. Sitting up front, using special wireless systems that sync up with a hearing aid, or receiving the assistance of a note taker are typical accommodations that can help. But these have limitations, may not be an option for the student, or may not be permitted by the school. Plus, many courses use online videos to supplement in-person course materials. These videos can be difficult for the deaf and hard of hearing to learn from. For example, if the audio isn’t recorded properly, it can be hard to hear what’s being said. Simply boosting the volume doesn’t help because background noise from the recording gets louder and can drown out what’s being said in the video. When available, closed captioning or subtitles can help but not all online videos (such as those on YouTube) have captions or subtitles.
Difficulty participating in classroom discussions
Participating in classroom discussions is one of the major benefits of taking classes in person. Impromptu learning lessons can create some of the most memorable learning moments in your academic career. But for a deaf and hard of hearing student, whatever accommodations exist to help the student listen to the professor may not apply to class discussions. For example, a professor might use a special wireless microphone to transmit what they say to the student’s hearing aid. However, when a student in the class speaks, they won’t be using this microphone and the deaf and hard of hearing student won’t hear what’s being said.
Limited social contact and interaction with other students
One of the biggest reasons to attend class on campus is to have the opportunity to interact with classmates—something that can be difficult for deaf and hard of hearing students. A school will most likely not have the same accommodations at an ice cream social as it would at a class lecture. Other factors also play a role; a recent example is the use of face masks due to the coronavirus pandemic. If a deaf and hard of hearing student relies on lip reading to understand what someone is saying, then their chances to communicate with someone wearing a mask are greatly diminished.
Lectures prepared without accommodations in mind
Let’s say a teacher has prepared a lecture with written text and pictures in a PowerPoint presentation. The PowerPoint slides are shown in sync with the teacher’s in-class narration. A deaf student might choose to have a sign language interpreter sign what the teacher says in class. But a problem arises when the teacher is talking about what’s on a slide. While most students can hear what’s being said as they view the slide’s contents, a deaf and hard of hearing student is instead watching their interpreter. After they see what’s being said, they shift their eyes to the slide itself. By then, the teacher has moved on to the next slide. In a case like this, the professor can adjust their presentation to add pauses so deaf and hard of hearing students have a chance to both see their interpreter’s signs and view the PowerPoint slide.
Benefits of Online Classes for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students
Adjusting your work schedule around class times and commuting to campus is inconvenient for any student. Luckily, taking classes virtually reduces some of these problems by offering self-paced learning, asynchronous classes, and no commute. Some of the benefits of online learning include:
Ability to learn at your own pace
One of the struggles for hearing impaired students is that, because of how class information is presented, it can take longer for them to learn the same concepts. Luckily, many online classes offer self-paced learning. While the amount of time a student has to complete an in-person course requirement depends on the school, program, and subject, online learning often allows students to complete a course as quickly or slowly as they like. That flexibility gives any student the opportunity to get clarification or tutoring on course materials that are unclear.
Increased quantity and quality interactions with professors and peers
With remote students limited to online communication, professors and classmates adjust how they share information. This can result in better communication from the professor to the students, including more prompt email replies, a greater familiarity with video chat technology, and increased availability for online assistance.
Greater access to course content
In a traditional class, students use a textbook and lectures from the professor. Much of the critical information is contained in those lectures. If a student doesn’t take good notes, they could miss critical concepts. But in an online program, lectures are on the Internet. This means that closed captioning may be built into the videos and that students can watch the video as many times as they like to ensure they get all of the information.
Use of closed captioning available on most video/live lectures
Most lectures from a professor should have closed captioning or subtitles available. Even though these are required for deaf and hard of hearing students, the rest of the class might appreciate this feature, too. Maybe there are a few students who can hear just fine but want to watch the lecture in a public place and would rather read (instead of listen to) what’s being said.
Higher comprehension, learning outcomes, and grades
When students are in a classroom, special steps are necessary to accommodate hearing impaired students. But with many forms of virtual learning, all students are reading words on a screen— something hearing impaired students are very familiar with. For example, for an in-person class a deaf and hard of hearing student might not be able to hear or participate in a class discussion. But if that discussion takes place on a message board, all students, whether hearing impaired or not, read the comments and add their thoughts.
Fewer communication difficulties
If a lecture is pre-recorded, the professor most likely is using a digital camera and microphone and converting the content into digital form. As a result, online programs often have classroom accommodations for deaf students already taken care of as part of the content delivery process or they may require only a small amount of additional effort, such as captioning pre-recorded videos.
Less overall anxiety
When a student knows they can take additional time to complete a class assignment without first having to get approval, it eliminates stress. Knowing most of the class material is already presented in a way that doesn’t require a special assistant or piece of technology reduces a student’s worry about missing important class information.
Assistive Technology for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students
Even though online learning has inherent qualities that make it more accommodating for the hearing impaired, there are still a plethora of assistive technologies that an online master’s degree student may find helpful. Many schools have special centers or departments that focus on providing this assistance. For example, Harvard University has the Assistive Technology Center, which focuses on providing assistive technology technical support to all students. Below is a list of assistive technology options professors can use to adjust their course materials to accommodate the needs of deaf and hard of hearing students.
Captioning is the addition of text to a video so that the spoken portion of the video can be read in addition to being heard. Captioning can either open or closed. Open captioning is part of the video, so captions are always part of what’s being viewed. Closed captions are on a separate “track” from the video, so they can be turned off by the user. Captions can be added to the video in real time by a captioner or transcriber, added by a person after a recording is made, or prepared as a transcript.
Speech to text
As its name implies, this technology converts the speech portions of a video or audio recording to text that a student can read. Speech to text can be provided as a service in which speech is converted live by a transcriber. Speech to text can also exist as technology, usually software that automatically converts the speech portions of a video into text that the viewer reads. Speech to text completed by technology is far cheaper than using a transcriber, but it’s not as accurate.
This is similar to speech to text in that someone converts spoken words into written words. But audio transcription can include the translating of information. So instead of the transcriber converting what’s being said word for word, the transcriber instead takes the meaning of what’s being said and writes that for the deaf student to read. This form of audio transcription gives students the ability to get clarification about the information directly from the transcriber.
Special hearing aid or cochlear implant accessories
Those who have difficulty hearing might use hearing aids or cochlear implants that work just fine for real-world sounds. But listening to audio through computer speakers or headphones can be unpleasant and difficult due to how the student’s hearing device works. The student may need a special adapter that plugs into a computer headphone jack then links up with the hearing aid or cochlear implant (wirelessly or with a cable). This allows students to hear the sounds from their computers much more easily.
Speech to sign language technology
Not all students are comfortable with reading what’s being said. Instead, they’d rather receive information in the form of sign language. This is often done through the use of a person translating spoken word into sign language. But hiring a sign language interpreter can be expensive. Technology that takes voice audio and converts it into real-time sign language is fairly new, and its accuracy isn’t perfect. It requires voice recognition software that learns how the speaker talks to create the most accurate version.
High quality external speakers or headphones
While special accessories allow a student to connect their hearing aid or cochlear implant to their computer, sometimes a simpler solution is to use higher quality speakers or headphones. External speakers can provide a rich, full sound over a wider range of frequencies, making it easier to understand audio. High quality headphones can do the same; those that go over the entire ear and have noise canceling properties may benefit certain students, depending on their unique hearing needs and the background sounds they’re dealing with.
Use of text-based instant messages
Presenting real-time class discussions in text form instead of video or audio can make it far easier for a deaf student to follow what’s being said as well as make their own contributions. Instant messages automatically identify who is saying what. They also force students to take an extra moment to think about what they want to say, which can improve the quality of the in-class discussions.
This is a lesser known technology that’s similar to traditional texting, whether through a mobile phone or an instant messenger app on a computer. With a regular text or instant message, someone types what they want to say, but it’s not sent until they click “send.” Then the entire message gets sent to the recipient. With real-time text, the text gets sent as it is being typed, errors and all. This provides a more organic and realistic method of communicating.
Additional Resources for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students
An Expert Weighs In
Svetlana Kouznetsova (Sveta) is an independent consultant and accessibility trailblazer based in the New York City area. Sveta helps businesses make their mainstream web, media, and events more accessible. She is also a founder of Audio Accessibility and provides consultation on improving communication and information access to 466 million deaf and hard of hearing people worldwide. Sveta is a book author and an international speaker. Her TEDx talk uncovers the benefits of high-quality captioning that increases audience and ROI for businesses. She has an MS in Internet Technology and over 20 years’ experience in design, technology, and accessibility. Sveta’s combination of personal experience with deafness and professional expertise in accessibility offers valuable insight into the importance of accessibility.
Q. What can a student do if a school tells them certain accommodations are too difficult to implement?
All educational institutions are expected to make materials accessible. There are no easy or difficult accommodations to handle, in my opinion. There’s this saying: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” I keep sharing my favorite quote by Plato during my work: “Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.”
If an organization cares, they will not only consider doing the basic minimum, but they are also willing to go above and beyond. It’s not enough to just make information accessible—it’s more important to do it the right way so that it’s easier for deaf people to consume.
Often people think it’s enough to just enable auto captions when it comes to making audio content accessible, but it’s often not a good idea, especially for education.
I explain that in my TEDx talk:
I also wrote an article on this topic:
I published a book in 2014 explaining in detail about captioning access. It also has parts about accessibility for deaf and hard of hearing people in secondary and post-secondary education. My book can be found on: https://audio-accessibility.com/book/
Q. Do you find that online courses are easier for deaf or hard of hearing students, or do online courses present challenges on par with traditional classroom courses?
Deaf students are different in their preferences for online or traditional classroom courses. I have no preference as long as both formats are accessible and done the right way. I personally find it easier and more comfortable to attend online events so that I don’t have to travel, but lately I’m tired of the online presence and would love to go to more in-person events.
Q. Over the past few years, many have worn masks to help combat the coronavirus. That obviously presents a very unique challenge for those who are accustomed to lip reading. What are some ways around that problem for students in a traditional college setting?
The best solution would be clear masks: https://audio-accessibility.com/clear-masks/
Now that more people are vaccinated, more places allow you to pull down masks when needed or to not wear masks.
Masks or not, lipreading is still not 100% effective, so many deaf people would prefer to communicate via writing or sign language.
I made a video about how to communicate with deaf people, masks or not:
Q. Is there anything you’d like to add concerning online education for deaf or hard of hearing students?
When it comes to accessibility, there are three options: do nothing, do everything yourself, or let experts do it for you. We know what happens if nothing is done—a lawsuit or losing customers to disability-friendly competitors, and a bad reputation on top of it. It’s possible to do everything by yourself, but like with any other field, you need experience and training.
Accessibility is a huge undertaking and not something you can learn or do overnight, especially for formal educational content. There are so many moving parts to consider in order to make accessibility more usable to deaf and hard of hearing people. There’s no one size solution for all situations. So the best solution would be to hire an accessibility expert to help your organization.