Supporting Self-Advocacy Skills with Children with Hearing Loss
Self-advocacy has played a critical role in transforming the world of special education, including for students with hearing loss. Prior to 1975 (when the Individuals with Disabilities Act was passed), children with disabilities were not given access to public education, let alone taught to express their needs and rights. Since that time, we've learned that leading deaf and hard-of-hearing students to realize and communicate their needs is a crucial component of their academic experience.
Teachers, therapists, and parents can guide students with hearing loss to self-advocate continuously throughout their academic (and eventually professional) careers. This may feel like an overwhelming task, but pinpointing some specific areas helps to break down the broader topic into practical and applicable ideas.
Helping students learn to understand their hearing loss is a good place to start. Like most self-advocacy skills, this knowledge will grow as students get older. Initially, they learn that they have a hearing loss, and later how their specific loss (the type and severity) impacts their access to the sound and speech occurring around them.
For example, does the student hear normally in only one ear? Talk about the impact of unilateral loss on hearing in noisy environments and sound localization. Is it difficult for the student to hear high-frequency phonemes? Use an audiogram to map out certain phonemes and how their hearing loss might cause them to misunderstand certain words. Taking time to analyze how hearing loss can influence everyday situations validates the student's experiences and helps them feel more confident when responding in future situations.
Another foundational element of self-advocacy is being able to understand amplification devices, such as cochlear implants and hearing aids, for those that use them. Children should learn about their devices, including the correct terminology for the device and its parts, how it provides access to sound, and basic troubleshooting.
Students can learn about their devices using a variety of resources, from structured teaching activities to manufacturer-produced websites and videos. In the digital activity below, students label and describe the function of the parts of hearing aids and cochlear implants. Students can also apply information learned through research by creating their own resources using hearing device graphics or photos.
Children that use an assistive listening device, such as an FM system, should be encouraged to understand the purpose of that equipment as well. This could also include alert devices, such as specialized alarm clocks or smoke detectors.
Students should develop knowledge of their rights and other supports that will help them be successful in the classroom (and beyond!). This could be as simple as asking friends at lunch to speak one at a time, requesting classmates to sit across from (instead of next to) the student in a bustling classroom so the lips are visible, or temporarily moving themselves to a desk farther from where a sink is running.
Of course, supports for deaf and hard-of-hearing students are more formally outlined in an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 Plan. As they get older, students can be more active participants in discussions about which accommodations would help them at school. Having the child provide their classroom teachers with a handout continues the discussion and serves as a visual reminder of the plan.
When students enter the upper grades and transition planning is incorporated into the IEP, self-advocacy skills continue to be an essential focus. The emphasis shifts to preparing students to utilize other community resources and self-advocate in higher education or a job setting where unique and unfamiliar challenges will likely be faced.
A final but very important component of self-advocacy for children with hearing loss is ensuring they can effectively communicate about themselves and their needs with others. Having the courage to speak up and express their thoughts can be intimidating for students, so formulating and rehearsing responses through role plays and social scenarios is a great way to build confidence.
Students with hearing loss may experience other challenges that impact others' ability to understand their speech. Addressing strategies to improve speech clarity and repair miscommunications can help students feel less hesitant and be more successful when communicating to self-advocate or for any other purpose!
It can also be helpful for small groups of students with hearing loss to meet and practice these mock situations with each other. The group can share their experiences with self-advocating by discussing specific successes they've had or areas they've grown.
Taking self-advocacy even further could include providing an opportunity for the student to be an expert and teach peers or classmates about their hearing loss. In addition to building confidence, this exercise can take the "taboo" out of the topic of hearing loss and devices by giving peers answers to questions they may have.
Empowering students with hearing loss to understand and communicate their needs in various environments is the basis of developing strong self-advocacy abilities. The skillset that students acquire and use throughout their schooling is going to continue to benefit them outside of the classroom as they pursue higher education or a career.
Check out these additional self-advocacy resources for DHH students:
Deafverse.com is a free online game (developed by the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes) that allows teen students to apply self-advocacy to relatable situations.
This set of illustrated cards by Dr. Carol Flexor and Ritu Nakra (and hosted on the hearingfirst.org website) provide explanations with visuals for various components of self-advocacy for children with hearing loss and their families.