Accommodating Students with Deafness

I was fortunate enough to attend a conference in October 2019 entitled, Opening the Pathway to Technician Careers: A Conference for Biology Teachers of Deaf Students.  The conference, held at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York state, was offered by the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in association with DeafTEC and Bio-Quest.  Participants included instructors both from schools for the deaf and from institutions of higher education, many of whom were individuals with deafness.  Also attending were interpreters from other institutions who were there to learn, and interpreters circulating to facilitate communication among the conference attendees.

The conference was an invaluable experience.  I met wonderful colleagues, learned how to modify my curriculum for students with deafness, returned with a list of dos and don’ts, and learned how to applaud for someone who cannot hear.  We explored teaching methods, and the interpreters shared challenges they face and what teachers can do to assist them in helping students.

Here’s a summary of what I learned.  Feel free to email with any questions.

For Instructors:

  1. Instructors should slow down if there is an interpreter. The lag time can be up to 10 seconds.
  2. Give interpreters access to the textbook and other resources ahead of time.  The more familiar they are with the content, the better.
  3. More visual representations of material and activities are helpful for students with deafness.
  4. Alternative text for visuals is helpful for students with deafness as well as those with visual impairments.
  5. The English skills of students with deafness are often below grade level.
  6. Wait a few seconds after posing a question before calling on a student with deafness so they have time to watch the interpreter and then think about the answer.
  7. Be understanding.
  8. Ask if the accommodations are working for the student.
  9. Faculty should avoid communicating misconceptions.


…ask if the student with deafness can lip read.

…assume the student has bad English.

…assume you should talk louder.

…think a student with deafness can read Braille.

…ask if the student with deafness can read and write in English.

…say, “I’m so sorry.  That’s such an awful life.”

…think the student with deafness needs a wheelchair.  (Yes, one instructor told me they brought her a wheelchair at an airport when she told them she was deaf.)

…give an alternate assignment.

…ask how much an interpreter will cost.

For Disability Support Services:

  1. Hire only Interpreters who are certified.
  2. Interpreters must have a solid background in the subject they are translating.
  3. Even though not required, accommodations may be necessary for meetings, attending office hours, social events, research experiences, etc.
  4. Consider having pay come from the top of the institution. When pay must come from the department level, the smaller budget can lead to attempts to limit services.
  5. Try to find deaf mentors.  They are helpful because they provide a role model, and can make sure the student has accommodations so the student doesn’t have to think about that.  They also can learn about internship opportunities and make sure the student is aware of them.

For Interpreters:

  1. There are no standardized signs for all terminology in STEM. Some instructors make up their own signs used only in that classroom.  Students then sometimes have to use one set of signs in one class and another set in a different class.  Interpreters attending the conference hope to push for standardized signs in STEM.  I’ll post any updates I learn about.
  2.  It’s beneficial if Interpreters work in teams.
  3. Interpreters should study ahead of time.
  4. Helpful websites for interpreters:


Spread the Sign

*Update February 2020:  A deaf student at the University of Dundee created new signs for science.  In the near future, there may be signs for some of the scientific terminology that must currently be conveyed through finger spelling.  Here’s the article.

*Update July 2021:  This article, Expanding American Sign Language’s scientific vocabulary, indicates that new ASL signs are being developed for scientific terminology.  ASLCORE is one of the groups developing new signs.

General Information:

  1. Microsoft Translator is a good speech to text add on for lectures.  We saw this demonstrated at the conference, and it works well.  Information can be saved to a laptop so a transcript is available.
  2. Another speech to text option is Live Transcribe by Google, available for Android.  My college’s Center for Accessibility is currently providing that for a student in my microbiology class.  All I have to wear is a microphone.  The translation is amazingly accurate.
  3. Educational media with captioning and descriptions: Described and Captioned Media Program

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