Online classes are difficult for the hard of hearing. Here’s how to fix that.

Finding the right tech and setup is easy.
A young man under rd and purple light, wearing a computer headset and touching his microphone while looking at a screen.
Wearing a headset is a good way to ensure your voice comes through clearly for anyone who's hard of hearing, but this kind of lighting might make it hard to read your lips. Fausto Sandoval/Unsplash

Over the last several months, schools across the nation have opened and closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless of where you teach or go to school, there is a chance you’re involved in some form of video conferencing. This can pose a challenge to any members of your group who are hard of hearing.

In general, there’s a sense of separation between hard-of-hearing people and others, and our socially distanced world only makes communication harder. Besides the emotional toll resulting from a sense of loneliness and a general feeling of being misunderstood, there are practical concerns such as the inability to lip-read through masks. But while technology might offer some easy solutions, the more important task of creating a culture of inclusiveness is a little harder.

Basic classroom setup tips

The simple decision to use a headset can make a huge difference in the quality of sound, says education consultant Brittany Dorn, who has a doctorate in special education and a master’s in deaf education. You’ll also want to position yourself so video call participants can clearly see your face and, if necessary, read your lips. Beyond that, light up your features by facing a light source like a window or lamp. Neutral backgrounds free of visual distractions can help even more, says Carola Martinez, an itinerant teacher of deaf and hard-of-hearing students in New York City public schools.

Built-in tech features can help, too: Remote learning over video conferencing offers perks that make it easier for deaf people to follow along. “Sometimes, a simple fix like using Google Meets, which [have] a closed captioning setting, can make a big difference,” Martinez says.

But auto-captioning isn’t perfect. On my Google Meet call with Dorn, the service was laughably inaccurate. First, the images we both saw were fuzzy, despite strong internet connections on each side. Then the audio was fuzzy. It was an exhibit in the pitfalls of our reliance on technology. She suggested a service like Web Captioner, which captions everything you say onto a sharable screen. We tested Web Captioner on our video call, and it yielded somewhat mixed results. She spoke, her shared screen filled with text, and I pieced her message together from those words. When I review the text now, though, it seems incomprehensible. For more accurate and more expensive (read: not free) options, check out Rev and Streamer.

A person using Web Captioner on a video call with another person, with the captioned text displayed on the screen.
Web captioning services can help, but they might require a bit of additional translating. Eli Reiter

More advanced tech tips

Hotkeys can also be useful, says Michelle Morgan, a disability specialist at Yale’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning. These keyboard shortcuts allow participants who can’t operate a mouse (for reasons related to mobility or eyesight), to move around a website or application by jumping to its major components (like “mute,” or “raise hand” on Zoom), she says. She also suggests spotlighting, which pins one or more speakers for an entire group of people in a video conferencing session. Doing so makes the speaker larger and easier for people to see and read their lips. If you’ve ever been in a Zoom session with a lot of people and can’t find who is speaking, you understand how spotlighting can help.

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With Zoom, for example, individuals and hosts can pin speakers on their own screens, but only hosts have the option to spotlight speakers for the rest of the group. There are key differences between the two actions. Anyone who pins someone to their screen will keep that person in view no matter who’s speaking, and it won’t affect meeting recordings or what any other users see. Spotlighting someone locks them in as the primary active speaker for all participants and on recordings.

Teachers should also warn hard-of-hearing students by announcing that they’re changing formats before they share their screen, Martinez says. This will ensure no one misses any visual signals about what’s happening, allowing them to prepare for new material. She also suggests that teachers and speakers send the agenda to their classes beforehand, as it will help students and participants know what to expect. During the meeting, teachers should do an extra check-in, in a friendly, non-condescending way. Maybe ask a few random students if they have any questions or comments. Checking in without singling anyone out is a good way to subtly invite students with disabilities to ask for clarification, without placing pressure or drawing attention to them for needing extra help. Afterward, the host should email all the discussed points and conclusions, with the chat transcript, to all participants.

Creating a culture

But beyond these technical and strategic steps, educators should strive to develop a safe, welcoming culture where individuals can express their disability and advocate for their needs. They should be able to ask teachers or speakers to repeat themselves or ask if they can close a window to reduce the sound of traffic outside, for example. As she teaches, Martinez asks students to repeat what they heard, and not just the last thing, because even the biggest slacker can parrot that back. It’s not to test what they think, or if they are listening, but to make sure they caught the end of the lesson or paragraph. Being unable to hear means not knowing what they missed. Checking in highlights if that occurred. She suggests teachers do so frequently. “If you ask a hard-of-hearing student if they heard what you said, they will say yes.” If teachers ask them to repeat what they just heard, and they stumble, teachers know to repeat themselves, she says.

Encouraging self-advocacy is hugely important, says Dorn, who works with schools to show them how to better-serve deaf students. When a student asks for something, she makes sure to say: “Good job self-advocating. I will turn the fan off.” Positive reinforcement is important as children learn the benefits of self advocacy. It prepares them for adulthood, when there are fewer cues to self-advocate.

This type of culture can still be fostered over video, says David Levy, who runs workshops for education nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves. He is hard of hearing himself and says working from home has actually offered a slight improvement over being in the classroom. “New hearings aids have Bluetooth, so sound is going directly into your ears and [you can] work the volume on the controls.” He also suggests investing in higher-quality wired headphones that reduce noise, cover your ears, and can provide better sound than wireless sets.

But there are still barriers when it comes to remote learning, Martinez says. For one, there is less coordination between teachers and parents. “It’s important that there is constant feedback during remote days, [especially] concerning work, because parents might not know what’s happening,” she explains. There is also less communication between teachers and specialists who usually take students out of class to work with them individually. Technology can provide solutions, but these intangibles—culture, support, and investment—are equally important.