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By Rhena Tevendale, teacher of the DHH, North Vancouver Katelin Miller, teacher of the DHH, Comox Valley Angela Wallenius, teacher of the DHH, Kootenay Columbia, with shared services in other districts

Over the past several months, you may have noticed the American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, Nigel Howard, on the daily news briefings related to COVID-19. Nigel Howard is a Deaf interpreter and is Deaf himself. Individuals with varying degrees of hearing are referred to as Deaf, deaf, or hard of hearing. “Hearing Impaired” is no longer an acceptable term. The capital D in Deaf signifies that the person identifies as culturally Deaf; these individuals use ASL as their first and primary language and are members of the Deaf community. They may use terms such as “Deaf gain” as opposed to “hearing loss.” Many Deaf people value their language, community, and culture and would not choose to change their level of hearing. Hard of hearing and deaf (lower case d) individuals may use ASL or auditory/verbal methods of communication and primarily participate within their hearing communities.

Nigel Howard, currently BC’s most famous Deaf interpreter, is briefed before each news conference. During the conference he uses a hearing interpreter who relays information to him in ASL. As a Deaf interpreter, he can translate information both linguistically and culturally so that it is more readily understood by Deaf viewers. A Deaf interpreter uses non-manual communication, such as facial expressions, body language, and head movements, to translate the emotion as well as the content of a message.

Having a hearing difference can be an isolating experience; these feelings of isolation have been significantly heightened by the pandemic for many people who are Deaf and hard of hearing (DHH). Mask wearing, while essential for preventing the spread of COVID-19, creates barriers in communication for people who are DHH. Facial cues are an important signal many people who are DHH rely on in order to fully understand what people are saying verbally and in ASL. Wearing a mask removes this visual cue. Some may believe that a clear mask could improve understanding, however, recent studies through the Moog Center for Deaf Education show that wearing a clear mask degrades speech perceptions more than some other personal protective equipment options.

All students, whether hearing or DHH, benefit from optimal speech signals. A sound-field (amplification) system in the classroom can improve the signal to noise ratio and signal clarity; however, as the graph illustrates, a soundfield system combined with a clear mask can still result in a high percentage of speech perception error. It is important to accommodate DHH students who need to see the speaker’s face in order to use visual cues. Scaffolding information, providing a written visual, and checking for understanding are imperative during this tricky time. A qualified teacher of the Deaf and hard of hearing (TDHH) can be a great resource for teachers to consult in ensuring your auditory teaching practice is equitable for all students. 

There are approximately 65 qualified teachers of the Deaf and hard of hearing in BC who work with 1,151 designated Category F (Deaf and hard of hearing) students.1 Qualified TDHHs provide DHH students with equitable learning opportunities and support classroom teachers in creating equitable learning environments.

TDHHs work with students from birth to Grade 12 using a variety of modalities. They work in a variety of settings, including early intervention, itinerantly in K–12 classrooms, in DHH resource programs, and at the Provincial School of the Deaf.

DHH students in British Columbia have the choice of attending their local mainstreamed school or the BC School of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing located in Burnaby (BCSD). BCSD offers students a chance to be immersed in rich language and social opportunities that are unlikely to be available in local communities. 

Many DHH students also attend various camps, field trips, and activities that are hosted either regionally or through the Provincial Outreach Program for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. These opportunities allow DHH students to learn, socialize, and not have to advocate quite as hard as in their everyday lives. Many of the students we work with are the only DHH student in their school. 

Teaching self-advocacy is a significant part of the work of a TDHH and aligns within the BC competency-based curriculum. Teaching students how to accept and explain their hearing level, explore their identity (whether it be within the Deaf community, their hearing community, or somewhere in between), and working with students to create equitable and accessible learning opportunities is crucial. TDHHs also provide direct instruction to DHH students in communication, language, academics, and social-emotional development.

Qualified TDHHs work with families and school teams to provide and implement accommodations to minimize barriers in equitable access. Most importantly, TDHHs support students in developing their identity and self-awareness so they can continue to confidently self-advocate after graduation.

TDHHs are in critical shortage. If you are interested in this fascinating field contact the Canadian Association for Educators of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing at caedhhbc@gmail.com. Or explore the Deaf Education UBC Masters Program: ecps.educ.ubc.ca/special-education/graduate-concentrations/med-concentrations/deaf-and-hard-of-hearing/

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