Classroom Interpreting

Parents - Building parent/interpreters partnerships to assure full and effective communication access for dhh students in school.

What is full and effective communication access for a deaf or hard of hearing child in school? This may be easier to conceive of in contrast—what is school like without accessible communication? Where are the gaps? If they can be identified, can they be met? This can be a challenge for hearing parents who’ve never experienced life without sound. Hearing people are so inundated by sound input that much of it is taken for granted. The sources of what’s coming in hardly register; the sound is just immediately assimilated with meaning through an auditory cognitive process that’s usually effortless for people with normal hearing. As such, most hearing parents rarely have to consider how they’ll access auditory information, so planning for full and effective communication access for their deaf and hard of hearing children is a skill that must be acquired.

Fortunately, parents can get some help here, and interpreters are a great resource. Parents and interpreters have the most contact with the child who is deaf or hard of hearing, and as allies, they can create the best potential for the student to enjoy full and effective communication access in school.

Mutual Trust and Respect

Historically, parents and educational interpreters have not had regular contact with one another. In fact, educational interpreters were often excluded from IEP meetings due to an antiquated notion that they were only automatons in the classroom, human machines that simply translate language from one mode to another, with nothing to contribute to the dynamic development of an IEP. And some interpreters have incorrectly concluded that they may not discuss the student’s communication and learning. Parents have been called uncaring and uninvolved if they lacked sufficient sign skills. Interpreters claim to know the kids better than their parents, while parents rage over their child’s academic failures due to poor interpreting. These stereotypes have created a climate of mutual mistrust.

For the sake of the kids, a greater understanding of and appreciation for what each party has to offer the other is critical. The best approach is now a legally sanctioned one. With the IDEA’s 2004 Reauthorization, educational interpreters are an acknowledged provider of “Related Services,” which brings them to the IEP table. Qualified, proficient interpreters can contribute valuable insight and expertise to the discussion. Interpreters and parents, as the two parties who likely know the child the best, often bring a sense of passion to their ideas and insights. In alliance, they deserve much credit for the functionality of communication access for a deaf or hard of hearing student at school. It all starts with a jointly developed access plan.

Access Planning

A methodical strategy of considering all the waking hours of the child, especially in school, and registering all anticipated sound messages can be an eye-opening experience for mom and dad. Parents with interpreters should identify the gaps throughout; everything should be tested for how the child will access this communication and sound information.

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

During group discussion in the classroom, does the interpreter translate everything or just the main message? When it’s so fast-paced, how will the student keep up?

Prioritizing messages and information will always be a challenge for interpreted education. Parents should ask their child’s interpreter directly about this to learn what strategies the interpreter plans to use. As the student gets older, his/her participation in the prioritization of information should be taken into consideration. If a classmate named “Jon” always asks the best questions, then maybe Jon needs a name sign and a designated priority during free-flowing conversation in the classroom.

If the deaf or hard of hearing student needs the pace to slow down so he/she can assimilate the information and ask questions, the IEP could reflect such an accommodation. This is why a general classroom teacher(s) is such an important member of the IEP team. Knowing the plan ahead of time invests that teacher in its implementation. This can keep the student from sitting quietly in confusion because he/she is too afraid to raise a hand and ask for clarification - the bane of deaf students in the mainstream.

MuMuch social learning transpires in non-academic settings. How will a child who is deaf or hard of hearing communicate with other children at lunch, on the school bus or at the playground? During sports and extracurricular activities?

Normal, healthy social development depends on meaningful communication with peers. It is essential for parents and interpreters to discuss the role of the interpreter as a facilitator of peer communication, when necessary. This should be a consideration for any deaf or hard of hearing child mainstreamed in a school with hearing peers. What information should be interpreted to the child? If the bully on the playground is calling a child names or is using foul language, does the interpreter convey this…to a 4 year old? to a 14 year old? Is the gossip around the lunch table shared by the interpreter? Is the interpreter even at the lunch table?

These are tough questions, and the best way to address them is through direct, open and on-going dialogue between parents and interpreters. Social access strategies will (and should) vary from family to family, based on their values and the input from interpreters who see the student in the school setting. This perspective is invaluable in the development of ideas for enhancing opportunities for more complex communication between deaf or hard of hearing and hearing peers.

When the bell rings, how will the deaf or hard of hearing child know? If the rules change spontaneously during lunchtime pick-up basketball, who tells the deaf or hard of hearing player? Is it ok always to depend on a hearing peer? What about conflict resolution with peers?

Interpreters are not always going to be available to kids across every minute of the school day. Other access strategies must be used, and a hearing/deaf or hard of hearing buddy system is often employed. When it works well, it has tremendous social advantages. But the day comes when “Buddy” is sick, or just sick and tired of the job. A deaf or hard of hearing child can be excluded, ostracized, or even endangered by reliance on peers alone for access to communication and sound information.

Lunchroom and playground supervisors must be specifically trained to intervene when issues arise for deaf or hard of hearing students in their domain. All too often, the hearing child wins the argument because the other child had no effective way to communicate his/her position. Many deaf adults recall painful memories from their days in school that track back to being misunderstood or dismissed because they communicated differently than the hearing majority. This demoralizing experience can be avoided by proactive planning. Should these supervisors be invited to a portion of the IEP meeting where this plan will be discussed? You bet! Can the plan include the educational interpreter being called upon to troubleshoot with the supervisor during a playground crisis? Absolutely!

Together, parents and interpreters can also explore and recommend available technology for the school to utilize. Bells and alarms can combine with flashing lights to alert students who are deaf or hard of hearing. TTYs, video relay service, phones, and pagers are available at little to no cost to schools so the student has an equal opportunity to communicate with parents or others as necessary. Captioned movies or video presentations should be standard operating procedures at all schools with student populations who are deaf or hard of hearing. Remote classroom captioning is a viable option for some schools. All public address announcements must be interpreted and, ideally, posted. Since many schools wait until breaks between classes to make announcements on the PA (to avoid interrupting classes), students with hearing loss miss important announcements as they transition from one class to another. Announcements need to be posted or print copies need to be made available to the students in their classrooms.

What if the student is fooling around, not watching the interpreter, or just snoozing through class? If the student is not choosing to access the communication around him/her, what’s the interpreter’s obligation then?

This issue should be discussed as an IEP team with the student, preferably ahead of time. Student inattention can be due to fatigue, lack of sign comprehension, or other underlying factors that should be addressed proactively. Planned downtime, comprehension checks, and other strategies can help. It’s just plain hard and even unnatural to keep your eyes on one information source for hours every day. Hearing children can shift their eye gaze to visual aids, the speaker’s non-verbal communication, or even close their eyes completely and still remain connected to the instruction. Most deaf or hard of hearing students don’t have that luxury. And if the instruction includes a lot of new language that scaffolds into higher concepts, a student who is deaf or hard of hearing and who missed the first level meaning will be lost for the whole lesson. If he/she lacks the confidence to ask for remediation, the student may detach instead. Disengaged learners often manifest with undesirable behavior, so it’s not always appropriate to assume that students with hearing loss are choosing not to access communication.

That said, kids who are deaf or hard of hearing are just as likely to demonstrate squirrelly behavior as hearing kids are. Does the interpreter go on signing? The answer to that may vary according the interpreter’s assessment of the situation, with anticipatory input from the parents. Whatever the decision may be, the policy must be relayed to the deaf or hard of hearing student ahead of time so the consequences of poor choice making on his/her part are objectified in the interests of good student/interpreter relations.

If the student has great oral skills or is using a cochlear implant (CI), does he/she need an educational interpreter for communication access support?

Students who are hard of hearing, using cochlear implants (CI), or skilled with listening and oral speaking can also experience challenges in accessing communication. Hearing aids and cochlear implants have not solved the problems associated with distance or background noise. Accommodations may be in order. But when parents request a sign language interpreter to help their children access communication, they should specify their goals very clearly. Does their child have a progressive loss? Do they want him/her to become a competent signer while he/she is young and before the academic stakes get too high? (Learning sign language while it’s being used to convey a trig or physics lesson is not a good plan.) Does the family have bilingual (ASL/English) goals for their child? Does the IEP stipulate that the interpreter will convey only new vocabulary and concepts so the CI or oral student will rely on his/her hearing ability alone as a means of sound habilitation?

There are many sound reasons for using educational interpreters with students who are deaf or hard of hearing. Parents and interpreters need to discuss the reasons and rationale and create access support strategies that can meet the diverse needs of students who use oral communication or who have a cochlear implant.