Hearing Impairments

Challenges and Subjects – this link takes you to challenges and subjects associated with this disability.

Brief description of Hearing Impairments and Auditory Difficulties

Students with hearing impairments may depend on their sight for communication e.g. speech reading, lip reading, British Sign Language (BSL) or a form of English using BSL vocabulary called Sign Supported English (SSE).

The DDA states that an ‘inability to hold a conversation with someone talking in a normal voice’ or an ‘inability to hear and understand another person speaking clearly over the voice telephone’ counts as a ‘substantial adverse’ effect under the Act.

When the consequences of someone’s deafness or hearing loss are being considered, the effect of background noise should be taken into account. Any attempts to treat or correct a person’s deafness or hearing loss are ignored for the purposes of the DDA. Importantly, this means that even if a person uses a hearing aid, his or her hearing without that equipment aid is what counts.

There are four types of hearing loss:

  • Conductive hearing loss (affecting the conduction pathways for sound to reach the inner ear). Conductive hearing losses usually affect all frequencies of hearing evenly and do not result in severe losses.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss (from damage to the delicate sensory hair cells of the inner ear or the nerves which supply it). These hearing losses can range from mild to profound and they often affect the person’s ability to hear certain frequencies more than others.
  • A mixed hearing loss refers to a combination of conductive and sensorineural loss and means that a problem occurs in both the outer or middle and the inner ear.
  • A central hearing loss results from damage or impairment to the nerves or nuclei of the central nervous system, either in the pathways to the brain or in the brain itself.

Detailed description of Hearing Impairments and Auditory Difficulties

For severely and profoundly deaf people, acquiring language is a different process from the way in which hearing people develop language. Usually language is acquired through plentiful exposure to meaningful linguistic interaction in early childhood. Severe deafness drastically reduces both the quantity and the quality of linguistic input available to the deaf person.

For a deaf student, English language development is rarely natural and automatic, but can be a laborious process with numerous obstacles and pitfalls.

For many prelingually deaf students (those born deaf), English is their second language and BSL is their first. However, unlike other students who do not have English as their first language, prelingually deaf students are physically unable to learn English the way a German or French native speaker learns English. They cannot be immersed in the language around them for they cannot hear it. In addition, since BSL is entirely visual, deaf students do not have a written or spoken language on which to base their second language learning.

Characteristics of Hearing Impairments Impacting on Learning and Teaching

For the deaf student who has English as a second language, it is not surprising if they are experiencing linguistic problems. Difficulties manifest themselves most obviously in written work, where mistakes may be found with sentence structure, verb tenses, word omissions, etc. To exacerbate the problem, carrier language is often hidden in fluent speech and therefore difficult to lip-read.

The lack of hearing and auditory memory means that students may be unable to rehearse what is put down on a page. Furthermore, BSL has a grammar and syntax that is quite different to that of spoken English, which can also confuse the student.

Research shows that the reading age of deaf students leaving school is below the national average, therefore it is likely that deaf people reaching Higher Education are already functioning at a relatively advanced level. However, reading can remain a laborious task for some deaf students, as their vocabulary can be considerably restricted in comparison with their hearing peers. Unfamiliar words, or words which have not been specifically introduced to the student, cannot be lip-read. Consequently, deaf students often have to research not only the technical jargon relating to the subject, but also language that is commonplace for hearing peers. An exceptional amount of time can be spent on reading and preparing assignments, often with the support of an individual language/learning support tutor.

In comparison to hearing students, the pathway to general knowledge may have been significantly blocked for the hearing impaired student. Hearing students absorb general knowledge through reading newspapers, listening to the TV or radio and holding discussions with other students. This incidental information often helps to form the opinions and develop the skills necessary for Higher Education. Yet, deaf students can be denied access to this whole wealth of general knowledge and life experience. The knock-on effect is often reflected in deaf student’s written work, which may be judged to be lacking in depth, containing immature and sometimes uninformed opinions and exhibiting problems with sequencing and overall structure.

Group work can be problematic for students with hearing impairments and a number of enabling strategies may need to be adopted by the rest of the group.

As an important component of many group activities is to devolve responsibility and control to students, tutors may be concerned that their scope for intervention and to take measures to include all students is necessarily compromised. To mitigate this, systems to encourage groups to take responsibility for the inclusion of all students need to be in place.

Tutors need to think carefully about the structure of their course, tutorial support, resources, staff development and learning environments, as replacing large lectures and seminars by more accessible resource based learning using small tutorial groups and computer based learning can reduce the need for communication support.

Providing lecture and course notes in advance can be a great help to the student and support worker, and providing these in electronic form may be the most flexible approach. Using visual aids (e.g. PowerPoint) can also help support the understanding of spoken information.

Characteristics of Auditory Difficulties Impacting on Learning and Teaching

Receiving Information During Lectures

Students who are deaf or hard of hearing may need to lip-read, and if this is the case, then the lecturer’s face – of the face of any other speaker in the lecture theatre – needs to be visible.

Spot lighting may be needed for lip-reading (and sign language interpretation) when the room is darkened, e.g. for showing slides or video. Where students use the services of a lip-speaker or an interpreter, such educational support workers are likely to need short breaks during lectures. They may also need help with provision and positioning of seating.

Both student and signer or lip-speaker will derive great benefit from being given an outline of the lecture material beforehand. Signs for new terminology need to be devised in advance: signs for specialised vocabulary such as heterocyclic compounds or hermeneutics are not instantly available to signers. In general, it is helpful to supplement aural information with visual information for students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Participating in Seminars/Tutorials

For students who lip-read, furniture might need to be rearranged so that the faces of everyone can be seen. A horse-shoe seating arrangement is helpful for this, ideally with none of the participants silhouetted against the light.

If a student with auditory difficulties is being excluded because of several people talking at once (which makes lip-reading impossible), the tutor could control the situation by passing a pencil or baton from person-to-person, with only the holder of the baton being allowed to speak. Prior notice of the topic and main ideas provides the context which is crucial for successful lip-reading. If the subject matter is not sufficiently structured to allow this, the main ideas could be recorded in a textual way as the seminar progresses.

Background noise can be amplified by hearing aids where room loops are not installed. Students might use equipment, such as radio aid systems, to get round the problem, and in these cases, speakers might be asked to wear a radio microphone, which is not a difficult request to comply with. Alternatively, a change of room to a quieter side of the building may help. Rooms with soft furnishings can also help as they reduce echo.

Work Placements, Study Abroad and Field Trips

Departments organising placements, field trips or study abroad for students with impairments will need to consider, ideally alongside the students themselves, the differences between the new context and environment and the more usual, and often more structured, context of study. Sometimes, the use of equipment, arrangements or personal assistance could, with a little planning, transfer to a different context. It will sometimes be necessary to identify additional items of equipment for specific purposes. For example, a sound monitor could be used as a visual indicator of classroom noise for a trainee tutor with auditory difficulties. The fact that funding may need to be found to purchase additional equipment for placements, field trips or study abroad, underlines the necessity to play and prepare long before the placement start date.

Students with impairments are positive assets on courses, where a reminder of the diversity of human experience is important. It can be instructive to be reminded of substantial gains for all students from organising placements in such a way that students with impairments are safely included, and not to think exclusively about problems.


For students who have impairments of various kinds, the usual assessment format may need to be modified to achieve the assessment objectives. Clarity about the latter will be very helpful in determining acceptable modifications, which will be different for different types of assessment, or for different parts of the assessment, e.g. a student with auditory difficulties may have no additional difficulty in completing a written exam paper, but invigilators may need to provide oral information during the examination, e.g. about changes to the exam paper, in writing.

Achievements which are being assessed may be capable of being demonstrated in a variety of ways. Responses can be conveyed by a student using sign language, which can then be verbalised by an interpreter, and written by an amanuensis. For some students who are pre-lingually deaf, written English may be deaf English, i.e. in the word order of sign language, which is very different from the word order of English. If the subject of the assessment is what is understood rather than how this is expressed, then signed responses may be acceptable.

Many departments mark anonymously. Where students produce assignments in an alternative way, departments may have to consider whether the goals of anonymous marking can be achieved in some other way. If departments regard anonymous marking as a protection against marker bias, then it may be possible to achieve this end by some other way of monitoring standards in marking.

Potential challenges to the achievement of learning


External resources