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Viral Video Highlights Barriers for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Students

A moment for learning

In mid-February, a video of an Oxnard college professor berating a hard-of-hearing student in front of their entire Zoom class for “not paying attention” went viral, causing dismay in the deaf community. The video had us reliving our pain from past experiences while worrying that this was still going on in the present, and possibly will in the future. (You can see the video and me discussing it on my YouTube channel below.)

Deaf people are not strangers to discrimination in school — being accused of not paying attention or trying hard enough to hear, or simply being made fun of. This is typically in a mainstream environment, in a public school where they’re the only one, or one of a small group of deaf students in a building of hearing people with no accommodations like closed captions, sign-language interpreters, note takers, etc.

When I learned that I was deaf at 11 years old, my parents continued to put me through public schooling. The audiologist didn’t give any resources about the signing deaf community and deaf education. I didn’t have captions for videos that we had to take notes from. I was denied access to sign language so I didn’t have interpreters. 

At that point in my life, I had no idea that IEPs or 504s existed. For those who still don’t know — and that would be most, I assume — an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, is a personalized legal document given to a student eligible for special education that helps make teachers aware of that student’s accessibility needs. The latter, formally known as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, is a plan made to guarantee a disabled student will get the accessibility they need for academic success.

Due to the lack of access, my engagement in classes suffered, and my grades followed. It only got worse as years went by, and what hearing I had left at the time continued to slip away. While there were many teachers who tried their best to accommodate me with what they had, there were a few teachers that were less than willing.

In U.S. History class, we occasionally watched educational documentary movies and had to write a number of facts stated from them. None of the films ever came with captions, so I would inform the teacher that I could not follow along. His only suggestion was to sit next to the speaker, which did nothing but amplify the sound and actually make it more difficult to understand what was being said.

I tried my best to write down what I could, but at the end of the hour, I had usually only written about 10 of the 30 facts, and rarely were those even complete sentences. While we were all waiting in line for the bell to ring, the teacher would flip through everyone’s papers. He didn’t say a single word about anyone’s paper until he got to my paper, chuckled, and started reading the very little I had written, making comments about how nonsensical they were. The class laughed with him.

In Technical Math, the teacher accused me of not paying attention, not trying hard enough to understand the topic at hand. His teaching method included writing math problems on the board at the front, while he himself stood in the back and explained, leaving me to try my hardest to follow along in two different directions at once.

Since math is visual, I had to literally see how to solve the problem, which didn’t allow me to follow the verbal explanations coming from behind. With the teacher standing behind me, it was impossible for me to know what was being said.

deaf students
Deaf and hard-of-hearing students face barriers in the classroom that many hearing people would never consider. (AdobeStock)

Once we were on our own, I had no idea how to do the work, so I did what any responsible student would do when they don’t understand something: I asked the teacher. Instead of offering help, he instead accused me of not paying attention to what he was saying.

When I reminded him that I’m deaf — which he knew very well from the beginning — and that it’s difficult to get all the information, he told me to read the book. However, I had already read the pages prior to asking for help. At the end of the day, he refused to help me. I barely passed that class.

What teachers need to understand is that their deaf and hard-of-hearing students are not the same as their hearing students. We cannot obtain information as easily as our hearing peers without proper access and we cannot learn to hear. It isn’t our fault that our hearing is gone, and neither is our inability to obtain inaccessible information.

There must be better awareness when it comes to hearing teachers and deaf students, and a push for better resources in all schools.  

Subscribe to Rikki’s YouTube channel here and read her past columns here

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