Hearing loss is the fourth highest cause of disability globally. The World Health Organisation estimates that there are currently 466 million people with a disabling hearing loss. Two thirds live in low and middle income countries.
In the UK, 2.33% of students with a disability disclosed being deaf (using sign language) or hard of hearing. In Australia, students with a hearing loss comprise of about 10% of the cohort of students with disabilities.
Studies show that up to 75% of students with a hearing loss who do manage to enter higher education don’t graduate. Those who do are often excluded from entering professions.
These global trends are also relevant in South Africa where universities are accepting and registering students with mild, moderate and severe hearing loss, but are failing to provide them with the necessary academic support, or accessible and inclusive curricula.
Statistics about the numbers of university students who have disclosed disabilities, and more specifically hearing loss, aren’t readily available. But, what we do know is that students who are hard of hearing are being granted access to university increasingly, yet they remain under supported. This often results in poor academic outcomes.
Generally, there is a lack of research about students using hearing technology and those who use spoken language. Not much is known about their educational experiences, the teaching and learning support provided to them and their teaching and learning needs. Very little is known about how they cope with academic live.
We did research to explore the teaching and learning experiences of students with hearing impairments at university and the daily barriers they face. We also provided suggestions on how to improve teaching and learning, and how to promote curricula transformation.
Our findings showed that teaching practices at the university we used for the case study were not inclusive and that curricula were largely inflexible. We selected this university for our study because it had a relatively large number of students with hearing impairments. Although this research explored the experiences of students with hearing impairments at one university, these findings can be generalised across higher education institutions throughout South Africa.
Our study found that reasonable academic adjustments, such as strategies to minimise or remove the effects of a disability to enable learning, were extremely limited. This means that these students didn’t have access and equal opportunity to participate in all the university’s activities.
Secondly, the support services offered at the university to students with hearing impairments were inadequate. Often, the students didn’t know what support was available to them. And even where it was in place the support didn’t meet the unique needs of the students.
The third finding showed that all hard of hearing students at the university experienced a significant number of learning barriers. These included:
Difficulty following class discussions due to high levels of background noise and poor acoustics, especially in large venues.
Inaccessible teaching practices, such as when the lecturer talks while turning his/ her back to write on the white board or chalkboard or showing videos without subtitles.
Inability to hear or lip-read, especially when lecturers switched between two languages or rapidly changed topics without warning.
Poor lighting when using a data/ video projector because students with hearing impairments weren’t able to lip-read.
Some attempts had been made by the university to be more inclusive. But the students still felt inadequately supported in terms of their unique learning and communication needs.
Moreover, students with disabilities in higher education remain marginalised and insufficiently supported. This interferes with their human rights despite progressive legislative framework in South Africa and the noble commitments to right the wrongs of the past.
The participants in the study made a number of recommendations. These included:
University lecturers must receive training around the principles of universal design for learning and knowledge in relation to hearing loss, and how best to support students with a hearing disabilities.
Support should be tailored to address the individualised need of students.
Large teaching venues should be fitted with good quality audio equipment such as microphones.
Induction loop systems should be installed in larger teaching venues. These systems transmit an audio signal directly into hearing aids/ speech processors through a magnetic field. This reduces background noise, competing sounds and other acoustic distortions that reduce clarity of sound.
A compulsory module on diversity, disability and inclusion should be offered in every course at a first year level.
Unless there is a cultural and attitudinal change at universities, and unless strategies are put into place to support hard of hearing students, they will continue to experience significant barriers to learning. These will have a negative effect on not only their educational experience but also their academic success.
A call to action is being made for university administrators, disability support units and lecturers to provide adequate and appropriate support to ensure equitable access to learning and thus a fair chance of academic success.