Author: Dolly Bhargava, M. Spec. Ed.

Hearing is one of the most important senses.  It plays a vital part in the learning process.  It is held that more than 80% of education is received through hearing (Pagliano, 1994).  American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) stipulates that hearing impairment  can affect children in the following ways:

  • It causes delay in the development of receptive and expressive spoken language skills. It also usually causes delay in general language acquisition and receptive and expressive communication. (However, in the minority of deaf children born to signing Deaf families, language and communication skills usually develop at a normal rate.)
  • The language deficit can cause learning problems that result in reduced academic achievement.

* Communication difficulties may often lead to social isolation and poor self-concept.

* It may have an impact on vocational choices.

Hearing impairment can impose basic limitations on an individual in terms of

  • access to spoken language
  • access to environmental auditory experiences
  • ease of interacting with a wide range of people, due to the above restrictions.

Difficulty in accessing spoken language may appears to be an obvious result of hearing impairment. On the contrary, there are many variables which affect just how much access a hearing impaired person has to spoken language.  As noted earlier, there are different levels of hearing loss; yet, even within these levels many layers exist.  For example, two different people may have the same type of hearing loss, the same level of hearing loss and all practical, physiological processes could be almost identical, but they may not have the same access to spoken language.  Person A may have acquired the hearing loss post-lingually, which has provided the opportunity to hear and the hearing nerves to be used.  Person B may have had to learn to listen without ever experiencing sound, and would have had to learn that sound itself has meaning before beginning to interpret what those sounds mean.

Clear access to speech is contingent upon many variables, including:

  • background noise being at a minimum
  • well-functioning and optimal hearing technology
  • clear speech being expressed by the speaker

Hearing technology continues to improve but still has limitations.  One of the limitations is that background noise is not usually completely eliminated when a person with hearing impairment is listening to some source of sound.  This means that the important information (i.e., speech) has to be separated from the background noise during cognitive processing. 

Clear speech is not exaggerated speech, and the student with hearing impairment uses all the visual and auditory information available to aid understanding of the message.  If any of these are exaggerated or distorted, the student has to cognitively explore the possibilities of what was said before trying to repair their misunderstanding of the message.  Accents, speech impediments, prostheses (braces), moustaches and beards can all contribute to the challenge of understanding with ease.

Environmental auditory experiences enable hearing students to retrieve information about what is happening in their environment.  Hearing students are able to learn incidentally about the world around them and about important functions of language.  In contrast, students with a hearing impairment are rarely able to hear enough (without attending to a specific interaction) to learn incidentally from:

  • Discussions and interactions between parents, teachers, other adults or peers
  • Disagreements or resolutions between these same people
  • Television or radio
  • Conversations on the telephone.  

(Calderon & Greenberg, 2003, p. 179)

Most environmental sounds are very informative. Hearing sounds around the house can indicate where a person is and what that person might be doing.   For example, hearing water boiling or the microwave timer lets you know that someone is cooking in the kitchen. Environmental sounds can help you predict what might happen next. For example, hearing the phone ring tells you that someone will get up and move to another area, or start you wondering if that the phone call might be for you. When they hear such things, subconsciously, hearing people make predictions and assumptions without effort.  For person with hearing impairment, some of these environmental sounds may be heard and some may not, which in turn means that the appropriate assumptions and predictions may not be made.  A student with hearing impairment may not understand why the teacher and all the students are looking out the window, when they heard a car crash on the road outside, or why the teacher stops talking and looks at some other students in the room who have been whispering. 

Warnings of danger, such as smoke alarms, fire alarms and car horns are usually given by sound signals, and the student with a hearing impairment may not be aware of the location of the sounds or what they mean. Some of these auditory signals can be supplemented by a range of visual ones, such as flashing strobe lights.  These accommodations should be considered by schools with students who are hearing impaired.

All these factors are challenges to students with hearing impairments. While most will be aware of the challenges, they may not always be aware of the strategies they can employ to help them glean information to stay abreast of the happenings in their environment.  These strategies can be utilized and encouraged by teachers.  

The student with hearing impairment obviously has to consider events and make predictions more consciously than the average hearing student.  This can be extraordinarily tiring (Calderon & Greenberg, 2003) and can have the effect of causing the ability to do these very things to deteriorate.  On a given day some students may be easily able to understand what the teacher is saying even though there is construction work happening outside, but on another day, may not be able to understand at all. 

There are a number of factors that can contribute to ease of understanding, and these are covered in the Accommodations section of this web site.

The student’s ability to access spoken language, environmental auditory experiences, and ease of interaction with others will depend on the type and degree of hearing impairment, self-awareness and acceptance, and on the educational, personal and practical support available. 

How do students who are hearing impaired develop an understanding of concepts, communication, and social skills as well as the ability to independently participate in everyday activities?   The following areas are underscored by a variety of authors (Marschark, n.d.); Smith, Polloway, Patton & Dowdy (2004); and ASHA (n.d) as some of those that are affected by a hearing impairment:

Early relationships, experience and early learning opportunities of the hearing impaired student will have made a lasting impact upon that student’s ongoing social, language, cognitive, and emotional development.

Communication and language are greatly affected by hearing impairment.  Early delay in receptive and expressive communication skills may have an ongoing impact upon the student’s ability to understand, process and use the information being acquired throughout one’s educational life. Individual students with hearing impairment may have varying abilities in their communication abilities.  The student may have difficulties with reading or with subjects incorporating jargon specific to that subject, but not used much in everyday language. There may also be difficulties with hypothesizing or with seeing things from another person’s perspective.

Social skills refer to those skills necessary for effective communication with other people.  They include both verbal and non-verbal behaviors. Some of the skills include eye contact, proximity, word choice, intonation, ability to read non-verbal cues, facial expressions, take the perspective of another, shift attention, and maintain topic of conversation (Disability News, 2001).  Social skills are crucial to our lives for personal, academic and vocational success. A student with a hearing impairment has difficulty with accessing auditory information and expressing ideas in a way that others can understand.  The Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario (1999) states that a student with hearing impairment may appear disoriented, distracted, or at times confused because of difficulties with accessing accurate auditory information.  The student may try to cope with difficult situations by copying peers or pretending to understand what is going on in the class while actually misunderstanding the situation.  The student with hearing impairment may appear to hear normally, when in fact the student can not hear speech sounds clearly enough and is misinterpreting the information. The student may have difficulties pronouncing speech sounds correctly,  poor vocal quality, or trouble explaining ideas clearly.  All of the above- stated factors can negatively impact social skill development as well as the ability to freely communicate, resulting in the student becoming shy, socially isolated, or displaying behaviors of concern (Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario, 1999).

It is important to be aware of potential areas of difficulty and to note when any confusion or misunderstandings begin to occur.  Rectifying confusion or misunderstandings early is imperative in order to ensure the foundational information is understood before placing more scaffolding information on top.  One suggestion is offering to give more information or background material to the student, parents, or the visiting support teacher, to preview or review the information being covered.  It can be helpful to have students act out or present information visually to enable clearer and deeper understanding of complex information.

Marschark (2002) suggests that these students “may have different knowledge, cognitive strategies and experiences” from hearing students and that we need to support the student with hearing impairment by utilizing skills and acknowledging areas of difficulty (p. 10). 

As discussed above, the student may lag behind in achievement in comparison to hearing peers due to the impact of hearing impairment on learning.  Therefore, the student may require skills in these areas to be specifically and explicitly taught, along with additional time and opportunities to practice these skills.