For those of us with hearing impairments, the pandemic has changed how we interact with each other, and this has presented some difficult challenges. However, there are some practical steps you can take to improve your student experience.
Addressing common challenges
If you wear a hearing aid, wearing a face mask can be impractical and uncomfortable. If you’re finding your face mask is pinching your over-ear aids, you might find it easier to wear a clear plastic visor when attending teaching sessions. Some universities are providing these, so ask your disability service if they can give you one. It might feel a bit strange at first, but you’ll get used to it after a while and it will help you feel more comfortable.
Perhaps the biggest barrier is other people’s masks muffling their voice and hiding lip movement. Even if your hearing impairment is mild, you may not realise just how much you rely on lipreading. Remember, you can ask people to remove their mask if they can maintain social distancing. If you have a learning support plan, talk to your disability adviser so that they can notify teaching staff in advance.
Your university should be able to provide teaching staff with clear masks or visors which allow for lipreading, or to fellow students if you’re doing group work. Some Universities are providing badges to make others aware that you need to lip read. You can also buy them online.
The T function of your hearing aids are a really powerful way to hear the most important audio in the room. Rooms equipped with a T (‘telecoil’) loop can broadcast audio directly from the lectern mic to your hearing aids. All you have to do is flick the switch on your aid/s to ‘T’.Most aids have this function so check that you fully understand how to use your aids to get the most out of them. Your University may be able to timetable rooms with T-loops for face-to-face teaching.
Of course, not all people with hearing impairments use hearing aids and T-loops are not always very useful for group discussions - following seminars can be very difficult.
Ask your disability service if they can arrange a digital note-taker for face-to-face discussions. They can type key points into a cloud based platform, such as a Google Doc, which you can access simultaneously whilst still at a safe distance!”
Digital note-taking can also be used for online lectures and some platforms provide the function for captions to be manually entered into the screen content so you don’t have to look at two screens at once.
Online lectures provide other benefits. Most platforms let you select between lecture content and the camera of the lecturer - enabling easy lipreading. Using a split screen, or better still two screens, can be a big help. If you don’t have a spare screen for your main machine, you could try simultaneously logging on with your smartphone or tablet - but you might need to turn off the sound to avoid feedback.
Instead of relying on your wimpy laptop speakers, a good pair of over-the-ear headphones can dramatically improve your sound quality. Some systems, such as those offered by Phonak, can even transmit audio from your computer directly to your hearing aids.
Hopefully your university will have offered staff (and maybe students) guidance on lighting and suitable microphone equipment, but don’t be frightened to talk to your tutors if their image or audio are unclear. Your feedback will improve things for all students.
The key point is to talk to your University’s disability support service who can explore the best way to support your needs.
Look after your wellbeing
It is understandable to feel isolated and unsettled as we adapt to new ways of learning. This is bound to have a knock-on effect on your wellbeing and it's more important than ever to look after your mental health. Student Space has some very useful articles on looking after yourself and don’t think twice about reaching out to your university’s wellbeing services.
Change isn’t always bad
There are some positive outcomes of the pandemic which will outlast social distancing and benefit us all in the future. Many universities are taking a proactive approach to make online learning more inclusive, including delivering pre-recorded lectures with accurate captions.
Meanwhile, companies such as Google and Zoom have rapidly developed their automated captioning algorithms. At the time of writing this article Zoom launches its beta version of auto-transcriptions. These solutions are not perfect, but they are getting there!