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Deaf/Blind Students in the Classroom

Can deaf, blind, and deaf-blind people go to school?

Of course, provided a deaf/blind student has the proper accommodations, and their teachers stay on the same page throughout the entire school year. Accommodations need to be arranged months ahead of time so the disability office has enough time to make accommodations (such as hiring long-term interpreters, notetakers, and sending textbooks out to be transcribed into braille). Exam accommodations need to be arranged weeks in advance so that accommodations can be made (such as hiring an interpreter or reader/scribe). Most schools allow students with disabilities to register before other students so accommodations can be arranged in time.

What options does a deaf student who doesn't know sign language have for accommodations?

A non-signing, or oral, deaf student has at least three options for accommodations.

1) An oral interpreter
An oral interpreter sits in front of the deaf student and repeats everything that is said (by the teacher and other students) by mouthing it silently. This allows the deaf student to lipread without having to worry about lighting or the location of the speaker.

2) An FM system
For deaf or hard of hearing students that have enough residual hearing to understand speech, an FM system can be used. The teacher is fitted with a microphone and the auditory information is fed directly into the students hearing aid or cochlear implant. The only downside is that the deaf student can only hear the teacher and can't hear anything other students say.

3) Computer Assisted Real-Time Translation (CART)
CART works by having a professional transcriber type everything that is said in real time. The CART information can either be fed into a single computer screen for one deaf student, or projected onto a screen for several deaf students. It can also be displayed in large print or fed through a refreshable braille display for a deaf-blind student.

What other accommodations might a deaf or blind student need?

Deaf students need to be provided with a notetaker or notes on the lecture ahead of time so they can focus on watching the interpreter, reading lips, or reading the CART. Any videos that are shown in class need to be shown with the closed captions on. When a projector is being used in class, if a deaf student is watching an interpreter, they either need the lights on or need to have an individual light turned on near the interpreter so they can see clearly.

Before even starting the school year, blind students need an opportunity to tour the school and become familiar with their classrooms and the overall building layout before it's crowded by other students. Blind students need to have their school materials, including worksheets and text books, provided to them in the proper format (large print, audio, braille, or a combination thereof). Having what will be written on the blackboard provided in an accessible format ahead of time or at the beginning of the class is also extremely useful.

Blind students should also have any visual aspects crucial to the course content either described to them, or if possible, should have access to a model of it that can be explored tactually. (For example, in a math class where graphs are important, a blind student needs raised dot graphics or graphs made of string or wire so that they can appreciate the same concepts as sighted students). Generally, electronic format is best for writing papers and turning assignments in, because electronic documents can be magnified or converted to and from audio/braille much more easily. The school technology department also needs to make sure that any computer programs that will be used in a class are compatible with whatever magnification or screen reader software the student uses.

Blind students may or may not need someone to guide them to their classes. Any students with service animals may need a short break to give their service animal a chance to relieve themselves.

Deaf-blind students will need the same kinds of accommodations as deaf or blind students (specific accommodations obviously depending on the individual). A deaf-blind student may need to sit closer to an interpreter or may need to have a tactile interpreter. A deaf-blind student will probably also need a notetaker, and will need to have all their materials provided in a format they can read. Deaf-blind students may or may not need to be guided to their class.

The accommodations listed above are just some basic examples. Make sure to consult the school disability services, and any teachers specializing in special education or education for the deaf or blind for more detailed requirements specific to the student.

What to Consider When Employing a Deaf/Blind Person

What kind of work can a deaf, blind, or deaf-blind person do?

Almost any job a hearing/sighted person can do. What any particular individual can do depends largely on their skills, the extent of their hearing or vision loss, and the quality of their accommodations. When seeking employment, each individual potential worker needs to be assessed individually.

The most important issues to consider with a deaf candidate are:

1) Communication
How does the deaf person communicate? Do they use sign language? Do they speech read, write notes back and forth, or type on a PDA device? How good is their speech comprehension in one-on-one conversations, and how good is their comprehension in a group setting? How are their speech skills? Do they use their voice or sign language to communicate? It's important to consider one-on-one and group situations separately because the two affect a deaf person's ability to follow significantly. Generally, the same person will need more accommodations in a group setting.

2) Phone requirements
Does the job require using a phone? Some deaf people can hear on the phone with their hearing aid or cochlear implant on a special setting, or with a special amplification device. Some deaf people can hold brief conversations with people whose voices are familiar to them only. If a prospective employee can't hear on the phone at all, they may be able to substitute all phone needs with email and online conferencing (such as contacting business partners). If answering the phone is only a small part of the job, they may be able to make an agreement with another co-worker to trade the phone duty for another duty.

3) Auditory signals
Any auditory signals simply need to be supplemented with a visual or vibrating signal. (More often than not, machines that emit beeps or other signals already have a blinking light or other signal accompanying it.)

The most important issues to consider with a blind candidate are:

1) Mobility
Can the blind person get around? Give them some time to familiarize themselves with the building and their surrounding areas. Any in-the-way obstacles that can be moved to the side should be. Service aimal users will need to have occasional brief breaks so that their service animal can relieve themselves.

2) Lighting
Most blind people can see better in certain types of lighting. If the lights can be adjusted to their preference, go ahead and do that.

3) Reading format
Most blind people can read regular print, either with computerized magnification or optical aids. Blind people who rely on audio or braille are best off using electronic formats, which can easily be converted to and from print and braille/audio through a screen reader or special software program.

Deaf-blind candidates need to have the same issues as both deaf and blind candidates taken into account. Most deaf-blind people have some usable vision or hearing and will be able to use many of the same techniques as deaf or blind people. However, in the case of a deaf-blind prospective employee who has no usable hearing or vision, tactile communication will most likely be their only form of communication. Any employer or co-workers will benefit from learning basic tactile methods like the Deaf-Blind Manual Alphabet or tactile finger spelling. Employers and co-workers will probably also rely heavily on virtual communication, such as email and instant messaging, which can be fed through a braille display for the deaf-blind person.

Braille technology is expensive so definitely make sure to contact vocational rehab for any financial help. If they can't pay for braille technology in full, ask them for some other resources that can help cover costs.

If you're not exactly sure what your prospective employee needs, simply ask them. Also ask to get in touch with their vocational rehabilitation counselor. Vocational rehabilitation may be able to pay for adaptive technology and will probably train the person on any new technology for the job. Vocational rehab will probably also train them on any adaptive techniques needed to perform the same tasks as efficiently as a hearing/sighted person.

How do the ADA, DDA, and other laws protecting disabled employees work?

Laws protecting the disabled vary widely from country to country. However, the main idea behind these laws is: you cannot refuse to hire any applicant just on the basis of their disability. If an applicant's disability interferes with the very nature of the job, or compromises a large portion of the job, then you can refuse to consider their application. If the applicant can find alternative ways to do all the tasks required for a job, then they must be considered for the job along with any other applicants.

An applicant who has equal or better credentials cannot be disqualified from the applicant pool just on the basis of their disability either. They may need accommodations or extra training for the job. Vocational rehabilitation should provide any training related to using adaptive technology or adaptive techniques to perform the same tasks as efficiently as other workers.

Just remember: think in terms of tasks, not sensory loss, and ask--don't assume--what a candidate can and can't do.