The COVID-19 outbreak has transformed American life as never before, and has forced schools and educational programs across the United States to switch practically overnight from educating students in classrooms within physical schoolhouses to a virtual system through the Internet or other alternatives. This policy guidance seeks to encourage all schools and educational programs to ensure that their system of remote education is accessible to their deaf and hard of hearing students and that the information shared with families are accessible for family members who are deaf and hard of hearing.
In the United States, there are an estimated 308,648 deaf or hard of hearing children between the ages of 5 and 17. Of these, approximately 75,000 are on IEPs, and roughly 20.8% are in specialized schools and programs for deaf and hard of hearing students. Given the nature of their focus, specialized schools and programs are fully aware of the communication, accessibility, and learning needs of their students as they transition to online learning. Such schools and programs are striving to ensure that the online teaching and assigned video materials are provided in American Sign Language (ASL) and/or captioning at the levels appropriate for their students. Nevertheless, it is essential for these schools and programs to ensure their students have the appropriate technology and resources to participate in remote learning for their programs during the time their facilities are closed due to COVID-19.
The remaining 77.4% of 75,000 deaf and hard of hearing students who have an IEP in PreK-12 programs are mainstreamed in general education. This is in addition to approximately 233,648 deaf and hard of hearing students who are mainstreamed without IEPs. Initial reports during the COVID-19 pandemic appear to show that school districts have been struggling to meet the needs of their special education students, including deaf and hard of hearing students. It is critical and imperative that all school districts and educational programs, including private schools, that have any mainstreamed deaf and hard of hearing students do a review of their online learning programs to ensure accessibility to such students. Failure to do so is a violation of those students’ rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and/or Titles II or III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The U.S. Department of Education has indicated that these federal disability laws do not prevent schools from providing distance learning during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, many schools provided their mainstreamed deaf and hard of hearing students with interpreters, captioning services, and/or assistive listening devices. The NAD has received reports that some schools and educational programs have stopped providing these students with interpreters, captioning services, and other support services now that they have switched to a virtual education online. The NAD is also concerned that any such services may have been altered in a way to adversely impact the students’ education. Such cessation of services or deterioration in services is unacceptable if this leads to causing the virtual education to be inaccessible to the deaf and hard of hearing students.
Schools and educational programs across the country that have mainstreamed deaf and hard of hearing students must ensure that their virtual programs – both synchronous and asynchronous – are fully accessible, and this policy guidance outlines the ways to achieve this mandate.
Accessible Synchronous Education
When schools and educational programs provide direct and synchronous education from their teachers to their respective classes via a video conferencing platform, such teaching should include the same level of access that was provided previously in the classroom.
If the student previously had a sign language interpreter in the classroom, then the interpreter should be visible via the same video conferencing platform so that the mainstreamed deaf and hard of hearing students can follow the lesson plans along with their peers and also be able to participate by expressing themselves in sign language. Ideally, for a sense of continuity and comfort, the interpreter should be the same one that the student has worked with, but at the very least must be a specialized educational interpreter with appropriate credentials that comply with state educational interpreting requirements. Inclusion of the interpreter requires that schools and educational programs need to equip the interpreter with the technology and software to fully participate in the videoconferencing platform, including making sure that the interpreter has adequate high speed Internet access for this purpose. The interpreters should be clearly visible at the appropriate size on the video platform used for the education. If the mainstreamed classroom teacher is visible at a larger size on the video platform, the interpreter should also be visible at the same size (or larger) to ensure that the deaf or hard of hearing student who requires an interpreter is able to see what is being said clearly.
Similarly, if the student previously had real-time captioning (often referred to as CART) services during classes, then the school should provide CART services for the online classes. Many video conferencing platforms provide options to add captioning through a plug-in, and care should be taken to use CART instead of any offered automated speech recognition (often referred to as ASR or auto-captioning). ASR is still in an experimental stage and is not ready for accurate usage, particularly in the PreK-12 educational context where students are still learning their vocabulary and grammar usage. Instead, professional captioning services should be retained for use with any videoconferencing or virtual learning system used by a school or educational program.
For deaf and hard of hearing students who have used assistive listening systems of any kind in the classroom, the school or educational program needs to assess whether such listening systems are effective for virtual learning. Review of the possible options should be tested with students who rely on such assistive listening systems to determine whether they are effective for virtual learning. We strongly recommend that for such students who might benefit from captioning or interpreting services, that their assistive listening systems be supplemented with CART services or interpreters during virtual learning.
Accessible Asynchronous Education
Even when schools and educational programs choose to provide asynchronous education materials for part or all of the school day, it is still important to ensure that such materials are accessible to deaf and hard of hearing students.
Teachers that record video messages from themselves need to ensure that such messages are accessible through captioning (or an interpreter if a student has relied on one for classroom lessons). Again, any captioning provided must be done with accuracy, and to ensure this accuracy, the NAD recommends using a professional qualified captioning service that uses captionists and not ASR technology to add the captioning. Alternatively, teachers or school IT staff can add the captioning themselves as long as their captioning efforts are accurate and verbatim. If a student relies on interpreters to understand such recorded messages/lesson plans, then the school has a responsibility to provide that student with access to an interpreter to understand the message/lesson plan in a timely manner (i.e., equivalent time as student peers have to access the materials).
Technology Access for Learning
Schools and educational programs need to make sure that their students, as well as their interpreters or captionists, have full access to virtual learning via the Internet. This requires ensuring that each student and interpreters/captionists have the computer or tablet technology necessary to access the lessons including loans of such equipment, installation of the appropriate software on such technology, and access to high speed Internet, including provision of hotspot devices. As explained above, because students who use interpreters need to see them clearly during their educational programming (which can be for several hours per day), the interpreters must be visible on a large enough portion of the video screen similar to or larger than the size of the screen accorded to the teacher of the class.
Accessibility for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Parents
It is also important to make sure that when teachers share asynchronous materials or lesson plans with young students who will require parental assistance and/or supervision, that the materials or lesson plans be accessible to deaf and hard of hearing parents even if the students themselves are not deaf or hard of hearing.
Moreover, any communications from schools and educational programs to the parents must be accessible to any deaf and hard of hearing parents. Schools and educational programs that have students who have deaf and hard of hearing parents should ensure that all auditory communications are captioned accurately and verbatim.
Importance of Social Development for Deaf and Hard of Hearing PreK-12 Students
Cognitive and language development for young children is critical in early childhood and schooling. A critical element of this development, particularly for deaf and hard of hearing students, is social interaction with peers and adults. Constant language input and joint activity for the development of cognitive processes is essential. Even a delay of weeks can be harmful to young children.
An accessible virtual education consisting of online lessons from teachers provides equal access to the academic benefits, but there remains a need to ensure that deaf and hard of hearing PreK-12 students continue to interact with peers on some level. Consequently, schools and educational programs need to implement interactive activities among students in a way that is accessible to deaf and hard of hearing students. In addition, the NAD recommends that school districts reach out to specialized schools and programs for the deaf to create opportunities for their mainstreamed deaf and hard of hearing students to interact with students at those specialized schools and programs. During the COVID-19 outbreak, such interactions may be necessary to ensure that deaf and hard of hearing mainstreamed students do not regress in mental, emotional, and social development.
Support Services for Deaf and Hard of Hearing PreK-12 Students
Many deaf and hard of hearing PreK-12 students often get support or one-on-one services, including but not limited to sessions with itinerant teachers, to ensure that they are able to benefit from their mainstreamed educational experience. It is absolutely essential that such services continue through accessible video sessions during the COVID-19 outbreak. Moreover, schools and educational programs should assess whether additional support or itinerant services are necessary for each deaf or hard of hearing student during this time as well. Schools and programs also are encouraged to utilize any deaf education experts to work with classroom teachers to ensure that their deaf and hard of hearing students are able to learn appropriately through the offered remote learning programs. Educational audiologists also can assist teachers and families on setting up or adjusting assistive listening devices for students to use at home. Schools for the deaf are valuable resources for either expertise or resources in teaching deaf or hard of hearing students via remote learning.
Resources and Opportunities
The National Association of the Deaf is available to work with school districts and programs in addressing the needs of their deaf and hard of hearing students as well as parents who are deaf and hard of hearing. The NAD has created a resources page of various programs, apps, technologies, websites and information to assist any school districts and programs that need them to achieve communication accessibility. Further, the NAD’s Education Section (host of the National Deaf Education Conference) has created a website with resources, both bilingual and general, along with educational activities to support families, students, and teachers.
School districts need to perform an immediate review of their remote learning programs to ensure that their deaf and hard of hearing students are able to participate and learn in all aspects of the program, including but not limited to providing the interpreters or captioning services needed. It is encouraged for them to reach out to the schools for the deaf in their state (as available) for collaboration and resources. Moreover, school districts need to include interpreters, captioning service providers, therapists, itinerant teachers, and other support services providers to ensure that deaf and hard of hearing students have such full access to their education as well as ensure that they can have programming to meet social development goals.
 The term “deaf” is to be interpreted to include individuals who are hard of hearing, late deafened, DeafBlind, and deaf with other disabilities. Although special education law and policies utilize the term “hearing impairment” and “hearing impaired,” such terminology is archaic and offensive to the deaf and hard of hearing community.
 U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) database, Table 204.60, (Apr 20, 2020). The 20.8% figure represents the sum of percentages in three columns of educational placement under “hearing impairment” in 2017 (the latest year): 10.8% for less than 40% of time in regular schools, 7.9% for separate school for students with disabilities, and 2.1% for separate residential facility This number does not include two categories that are distinct from general education or specialized programs and schools: 1.6% in private schools (which could be either mainstreamed or specialized) and 0.2% in hospital settings. This leaves an estimated 77.4% currently in mainstreamed in regular schools. By contrast, the same table and calculation puts the percentage of DeafBlind students that are in specialized programs or schools versus mainstreamed in regular schools at: 59.9% and 23.6%.
 20 U.S. Code § 1400 et seq.
 42 U.S. Code § 12101 et seq.
 29 U.S. Code § 701 et seq.
U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, (March 21, 2020) “Supplemental Fact Sheet Addressing the Risk of COVID-19 in Preschool, Elementary and Secondary Schools While Serving Children with Disabilities”