Teaching Students who are Deaf, Deafened, or Hard of Hearing

There are many teaching strategies you can use to ensure effective and productive learning environments and experiences for all students, including those with disabilities.

Accessible Education[i] is the process of designing courses and developing a teaching style to meet the needs of people who have a variety of backgrounds, abilities, and learning styles. Just as there is no single way to teach, people learn in a variety of ways; using different instructional methods will help meet the needs of the greatest number of learners[ii].

Under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, you have a responsibility to learn about accessibility for persons with disabilities and how it relates to the development and delivery of accessible programs and courses.


What does it mean if someone is Deaf, deafened or hard of hearing?

People who have hearing loss may be Deaf, deafened or hard of hearing. The Canadian Hearing Society has used the following definitions:

Deaf (uppercase “D”) is a term that refers to members of a socio-linguistic and cultural group whose first language is sign language. In Canada, there are two main sign languages: American Sign Language (ASL) and Langue des signes québécoise (LSQ).

Deafened, late-deafened and oral deaf (lowercase “d”) are terms that refer to individuals who have lost all hearing at some point in their lives, use spoken language, and rely on visual forms of communication, such as speech reading, text and occasionally sign language.

Hard of hearing is a term that refers to individuals who have a hearing loss ranging from mild to severe, and who use their voice and residual hearing – and occasionally sign language – for communication.

Some individuals with hearing loss may use assistive technology to communicate, such as hearing aids or cochlear implants; others may use interpretive services or read lips.

Suggested tips on teaching a person who is Deaf, deafened or hard of hearing

In the classroom or laboratory

Avoid making assumptions about a person’s disability or capabilities; many persons with disabilities talk about being frustrated with people assuming what they can or cannot do. Remember that although persons with disabilities might have specific needs, every individual is different.

Prior to the start of the course
  • Choose course materials early. This will allow enough time for you to convert the documents into alternative formats, or for students to request the formats they need.
  • Consider supporting your oral presentations with visual aids, such as tables, graphs, overhead slides, PowerPoint presentations, and captioned films or videos.
  • Consider whether the learning platforms or technologies you plan to use are accessible to all your students. For example, if you plan to show videos or use audio clips, determine whether the information is essential to your students’ understanding of the content or if alternative materials are required, such as transcripts or captions.
When the course begins

  • Encourage students to tell you about any accessibility concerns. You can do this  verbally early in the semester and by including an accessibility statement on your syllabus. Indicate that these conversations are confidential and are strictly for facilitating any learning needs or accommodations that may be in place.
  • Identify and clearly express the essential course content, and recognize that students can express understanding of essential course content in multiple ways. Diversify assignments or allow for exceptions to enable all students to demonstrate their specific talents (for example, oral presentations, poster presentations and written assignments).
  • Insist on professional, civil conduct between and among students to respect people’s differences and create an inclusive environment.
  • Consider providing your students with information about the accessible features of their immediate environment (for example, automatic doors and accessible washrooms).
  • Provide all students with the course outline, the list of reading requirements, and copies of all overhead materials, slides and handouts in an accessible, digital format whenever possible. Some students may wish to review this material with the interpreter in order to learn vocabulary.
While in session

  • Speak at a regular pace, as clearly and distinctly as possible, and without exaggerating lip movements.
  • Make sure the student can see the instructor and/or interpreter, the whiteboard and/or the screen at all times.
  • Before talking to the students, be certain that you have their attention.
  • Do not lecture with your back turned to the class.
  • Do not put your hands, glasses or other objects, such as pens or pencils, in front of your face while speaking.
  • Avoid pacing while you speak.
  • Avoid talking while handing out papers.
  • To limit glare, avoid standing in front of a window or in bright light.
  • Turn off unused equipment to eliminate background noise.
  • Accommodate the needs of students who use adaptive technology, such as closed-captioning, screen readers, personal frequency modulation (FM) systems, teletypewriters (known as TTYs), amplified phones and/or closed-circuit television (CCTV).

If the student is accompanied by an interpreter

  • When communicating, watch the student, but listen to the interpreter when he or she is interpreting what the student is saying; speak to the student and not to the interpreter.
  • Provide the student and the interpreter with a brief course outline as soon as possible. They may need to go over any new vocabulary ahead of time.
  • Allow the interpreter to sit or stand near you so the student can watch you and “read your words” at the same time as he or she watches the interpreter.
  • If you need to meet the student during your office hours, or outside of in-class time, the Office for Students with Disabilities can arrange for an interpreter. Adequate advance notice is required for arrangements to be made. Meet with both the student and the interpreter to discuss possible adaptive measures for the classroom or laboratory.
  • Take short breaks in your speaking to allow the interpreter to catch up. Also plan a 10-minute break for every 50 minutes of class presentation; interpretation requires a great deal of concentration and endurance.
  • Keep in mind that only one speaker can be interpreted at a time during a group project or a panel presentation, so speakers should be encouraged to speak one at a time.
  • Be aware that interpreters are bound by their professional code of ethics to interpret all spoken messages while in the presence of the student, including informal chatting.
  • When video material is not closed-captioned, provide enough light to allow the student to see the interpreter; the interpreter also needs to be positioned near the viewing screen so that the student can see the interpreter and the video simultaneously.
  • Be aware that interpreters often work in pairs, with each interpreting 20- to 30-minute segments. This is because of the need for a high degree of concentration and because of the physical demands of the work.
  • Don’t be concerned with the initial distraction that the interpreter’s hand movements may cause for the rest of the class; tests show that people quickly become accustomed to the interpreter’s presence.
  • Advise the Office for Students with Disabilities if you are planning to cancel a class or change locations, such as taking a field trip. Interpreters are hired on an hourly basis, so advance notice of changes helps reduce costs and allows for better use of the interpreter’s skills.

Suggestions for interacting one-on-one with a student who is Deaf, deafened or hard of hearing

  • Patience, respect, and a willingness to find a way to communicate are your best tools.
  • Attract the person’s attention before speaking. This can be done by gently touching the person on the shoulder or by discreetly waving your hand.
  • Look at and speak directly to the person, not his or interpreter.
  • Speak as you would normally.
  • Make sure you are in a well-lit area where the person can see your face.
  • When speaking to a person who is Deaf, deafened or hard of hearing, do not put your hands in front of your face.
  • Be clear and precise when giving directions, and repeat or rephrase, if necessary.
  • Make sure you have been understood.
  • Be patient. If the person’s first language is a visual language – American Sign Language (ASL) or Langue des signes québécoise (LSQ) – communication may take longer or be approached slightly differently than you are anticipating. Remember, the person is actually communicating in a second or third language.
  • Try to hold your conversation in a quiet area; background noise may be distracting for persons who are hard of hearing.
  • If you are not sure what to do, ask, “Can I help?”

Accommodating a student who is Deaf, deafened or hard of hearing

As an educator, you have a responsibility to accommodate students with disabilities under the Ontario Human Rights Code. Requests for accommodation are made on an individual basis by students through the Office for Students with Disabilities and require medical and/or formal documentation.

The following are common academic accommodations that may be required for students who are Deaf, deafened or hard of hearing. This list is not exhaustive and is not intended to replace the official request for academic accommodations as communicated by the Office for Students with Disabilities.

Classroom and laboratory accommodations

  • Assist in identifying potential tutors and/or note-takers.
  • Wear a personal frequency modulation (FM) sound transmitter.
  • Reserve seating in a location where you and the student have a clear line of sight.
  • Move away from the light, speak as you would normally, and consider using visual aids such as a chalkboard, whiteboard, overhead projector or slide presentations.
  • Access assistive devices, such as mobile closed-circuit television (CCTV) technology.
  • Arrange to meet with the student to discuss specific learning needs, strategies for success, alternatives to course assignments, and methods of evaluation when the student provides his or her letter of accommodation.
  • Provide extended time for tests and exams; note that students may have access to an interpreter during tests and exams to interpret questions.
  • Note that students may use an interpreter for oral assignments and presentations.

Remember that students with disabilities do not have to disclose their disability to their professors or anyone else in the academic environment in order to receive accommodations. Unless a student chooses to disclose the nature of the disability to you, you will only receive information on the accommodations the student is entitled to receive. It is important to familiarize yourself with the accommodation and the accessibility resources and protocols at your university to ensure that you are following recommended practices.


Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Disability Information and Strategies

Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Standard Practice Papers, Professional Sign Language Interpreting and Team Interpreting

University of Ottawa, A Guide for Professors: Minimizing the Impact of Learning Obstacles

Trent University, Accessibility in Teaching: Strategies and Requirements for Supporting an Accessible Learning Environment

York University, Faculty Resource Guide: Teaching Students with Disabilities

[i] The term Accessible Education has been adopted to capture the value of two frameworks in improving the accessibility of university education: Universal Instructional Design (UID) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Both were informed by the architectural concept of Universal Design, which is “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” (Center for Universal Design, The Principles of Universal Design)

“UID is not just about accessibility for persons with a disability – it’s about truly universal thinking – maximizing learning for students of all backgrounds and learner preferences while minimizing the need for special accommodations.” (University of Guelph, UID Implementation Guide)

“UDL is a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn. UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone – not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.” (Center for Applied Special Technology, Universal Design for Learning)

[ii] Nilson, Linda B. (2010). Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors (3rd ed). John Wiley& Sons.