Two years ago I was asked to teach a beginning course in Microsoft Office to a class of hearing-impaired college students, all of whom knew American Sign Language (ASL). The school where I work has a special program for deaf students, and many of my colleagues have successfully taught them, so I had no doubt that these students could do well. I did, however, have doubts as to how well I would do.

One comfort was that the class seemed to have a lot in common with most beginning computer classes: they already knew how to use the mouse, some had already sent e-mail or surfed the net, and they asked similar questions about the exercises. I often found them messaging their friends over the Internet or playing solitaire. Like all freshmen, many needed to learn to budget their study time to complete assignments.

Despite these similarities, communicating with deaf students seemed worlds apart from my other classes. Some students talked to me directly but could not understand me without a sign interpreter. Others communicated solely in sign language. Some were deaf from birth; others lost their hearing later in life. All had some form of sensorineural hearing impairment, which occurs when the nerve of the inner ear fails to respond to sound or carry information to the brain. Unlike hearing impairments that just affect the loudness of the sound, a sensorineural hearing loss affects the clarity of sounds. In other words, sounds are heard but distorted.

Working with an interpreter
For the students to understand the lessons, ASL is essential. Since I did not know ASL, the school provided a sign language interpreter, who translated everything I said. But, just because I had a translator didn’t mean that I could teach as if this were a hearing class.

First, I needed to learn how to get their attention. I did this by turning a light switch on and off. Speaking to a student individually was another matter. I was told to touch the student on the shoulder or arm, or wave my hand or a piece of paper in front of the student’s face. While such gestures might not be welcome in a hearing class, they are not only accepted, but also appreciated, in a class for the deaf.

Once I got a student’s attention, I was careful to speak directly to him or her. (There is always the temptation to talk to the sign interpreter instead.) This seemed odd at first, since the student looked at the sign interpreter while I was talking. Eventually, it became quite natural.

Hearing instructors are also encouraged to use gestures and facial expressions that they would normally use to get a point across. It didn’t take long before the students picked up on my gestures, and were able to understand what I was saying through body language alone.

A different teaching style
Clearly, teaching deaf students is more a visual than a verbal process. This makes using an overhead projector essential, especially in the first few weeks of class. Many of these students are not as fluent in English as they are in ASL and will need time to translate the course materials to work with them. Using the projector to demonstrate the exercises presented in the course materials is the surest way to get them up to speed as quickly as possible.

It is important that the students be able to clearly see both you and the interpreter at all times. I found one of the drawbacks of using a projector is that the room has to be darkened. We overcame this by adjusting the lighting, and since then we have purchased projectors that can be used without dimming the lights.

Another visual aid that should be used frequently is the chalkboard. Write everything on the board! Assignments, schedule changes, due dates, anything that you want your students to remember. Also, every time you introduce a technical term, write it on the board. Likewise, be sure to erase the word after you finish explaining it. I found that students get confused if they have to decide which word on the board is being discussed while keeping an eye on the sign interpreter.

Dividing their attention
This brings me to the most important thing a hearing instructor must remember: the students cannot watch you and the sign interpreter at the same time! It’s important that you don’t talk while you are performing a demo or writing on the board. Write a new term on the board first, and then explain what you have written. Explain a procedure first, then have the students watch you do the demo. After the demo, give the students every opportunity to ask questions. It is your responsibility to answer their questions, not the sign interpreter’s.

Repeat and rephrase. Sometimes, what you say or what the book says may be hard to translate in ASL. To ensure the students understand what you just said, repeat it, but don’t use the same words. For example, when introducing a technical term, use it in a number of contexts. Sometimes, however, rephrasing doesn’t help a student understand how to do an exercise. When this happens, I found it easier just to do the exercise for the student, after which I would click the Undo button, and ask the student to repeat what I did.

Write it out
I was told many times, even by students themselves, that it’s okay to write down what I want to say. This is something I feel I should have done more often, since whenever I wrote comments on their assignment papers, they invariably wanted to discuss them with me. Even though I realized that these notes were helping open up communication with my students, I hesitated to use them out of fear they would be difficult to translate. Then I came across a Web site that lists techniques for writing for the deaf.

According to this site, there are things you can do to make it easier for deaf students to understand your notes, such as:

  • Break up long sentences
  • Use the simpler word, if possible (such as “and,” “but,” or “so” instead of “consequently” or “nevertheless”)
  • Explain all difficult words with a definition in parentheses
  • Make sure the reader understands what noun a pronoun refers to
  • Avoid the use of idioms and the passive voice

The site also suggests that the instructor give both the students and the interpreter an outline of the next day’s lesson in advance as a way to help them become familiar with any technical terms that will be used, as well as what will be expected of the students.
Have you ever taught students with physical handicaps? How have you changed your approach? Are there tools you found helpful for you and your students? Send us a note describing your experiences.