More and more deaf students are being taught in third-level classes, some mainstream and others not. Here, Sinead Quealy, from Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT), shares her experience of teaching a group of adult deaf students. Her experience may help lecturers who teach deaf students.
I taught adults for three years in Waterford City VEC. During those years, students had different needs: maybe one individual within the class, or the class would share a disability. All these groups had one thing in common – I was able to communicate with them directly; my style was described as casual, personal and gently humorous (that was the aim!).
One group, on Wednesday nights between 7pm and 9pm, was different. They were my deaf class. I taught them FETAC level 3 Computer Literacy, beginner to intermediate level. Most worked during the day and attended this class at night. For all, English was a second language.
Limited Feedback From The Students
With this class, I had a wonderful interpreter, Karen. She showed me a few signs that would explain things as the course progressed, and gently informed me if I took something for granted – like spelling, phrases, or understanding the difference between “save” and “save as”.
The first lesson I learned was that humour gets lost in translation. I stood at the top of the class in my usual way; cracking jokes about computers and problems. However, I couldn’t hear the usual mutterings of agreement or little giggles that were so vital to my teaching; the bits of encouragement everyone needs to confirm that what you’re doing is getting through!
Karen assured me that it wasn’t personal, there simply wouldn’t be much feedback to my words – so I became more physical in my explanations and jokes, learning to use my hands, legs, pens, books, anything that came to hand, to drive home a message. Feedback improved.
Speaking Naturally For Lip-Readers
The class had excellent lip-reading abilities and slowly I realised it was easier for them if I spoke naturally, rather than trying to over-pronounce words. As I walked around the room I met students individually, relying on Karen to translate only as a last resort.
I felt it important to develop a bond with the students, and not hide behind Karen. This was the most rewarding time in each class. Discovering how my explanations had been understood by each student was fascinating. Some grasped concepts immediately, others were less sure of themselves and required encouragement, purely from lack of confidence.
My favourite trick, taught by Karen, was to stamp on the floor when I wanted everybody’s attention. I enjoyed this as the group knew I revelled in trying to make as strong vibrations as I could. They saw the funny side and gave the thumbs-up if I made a particularly strong impact. Thankfully it was a first floor room with a wooden floor and little effort was needed!
Share The Course Outline At The Start
The class appreciated my efforts to go outside the comfort zone and make learning easier for them. A few weeks into the course, the class came back from a coffee break when suddenly a question was asked. Karen translated for the group. It turned out they were unhappy we weren’t learning about the Internet yet. They had been upset for a while but hadn’t said anything. I apologised for not discussing the course timeline fully with them.
I had started the course by summarising the workflow and content for the 12 weeks. Typically, this detail would be repeated each week as students asked questions about the timeline. The deaf students never asked, just always followed exactly the content and topics as laid out. I mistakenly assumed that if they didn’t ask questions, all was well. From then, at the end of each class, we planned our work for the following week. I stopped taking silence as agreement. It has helped me in everything I’ve done since then.
Overall I thoroughly enjoyed my experience and would never hesitate to work with deaf students again. As so often happens when working with people that make overcoming a disability look easy, I learned more from them during the course, than they did from me.