This fall, as in-person learning in schools resumes, so too will many sports and other extracurricular activities. While that’s a welcome change for many students, it does require some extra steps to ensure that coaches and other staff understand how to support children who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Managing Hearing Technology Outside the Classroom
Indoor extracurriculars (e.g., art club, yearbook committee or student council) generally require the same accommodations needed in a classroom. For example, this may include the use of a hearing assistive technology (HAT) system, preferential seating and repeating the comments of other students.
But using hearing technology on the athletic field, in the gym—and even in the locker room — isn’t the same. These environments require the student’s HAT system to cover a much larger distance and to compete with various noises like traffic, wind, bouncing balls, squeaking sneakers, as well as yells, cheers and clapping from other athletes and spectators.
To ensure the student athlete has the best possible sound access while training and competing, it’s important to consult with the child and their audiologist, according to Mike Marchetti, a teacher of the deaf who’s worked with junior high and high school students in Clarke’s Model Inclusion Program at a regional Massachusetts high school. He offers various suggestions to prepare for a fun and active fall season.
Maintain and Customize Tech: “You need to maintain the devices properly and make sure you have the right settings for the way the student will use the device,” Mike says. He notes that many students using cochlear implants aren’t aware there are various options the audiologist can program for different hearing environments. He recommends consulting with the child’s audiologist and teacher of the deaf to discuss options. They can also be helpful in determining which HAT systems will be most appropriate for the student and their activities.
Honor the Child’s Preferences: Mike, who also uses cochlear implants, urges caregivers and coaches alike to listen to what children say they need. For example, in windy conditions or an indoor basketball game, a student may have better sound access using only their hearing aid or cochlear implant and not turning on the HAT. “Especially with older kids, it’s important to listen to their point of view and come up with a plan. Otherwise, if they don’t want to use it, they will do everything in their power to not use it. I was the kid who ‘accidentally’ fed my device to the dog,” he says, noting that this is especially common for students who feel isolated or different within a mainstream school. “Kids at Clarke have a support network and peers with hearing loss, so they tend to be better about using [the technology].”
Provide Refreshers: Mike also notes that after a year of most extracurriculars not being an option, some students might need to adjust to using their HATs again. “For older kids, it’ll be like riding a bike,” he says. “With younger kids, you’re still training them to master the devices to some extent, so they need to get back on their routine if they haven’t been using them at home.”
Facilitate Coach-Athlete Communication
It’s essential that coaches and extracurricular teaching staff learn about the hearing technology and equipment used by their students who are deaf or hard of hearing. If they can’t be included in the in-services where a student’s hearing technology is discussed, they can also learn about the devices from the student directly, or from their caregiver. “Most kids want to handle explaining it themselves and in the long run that’s better,” Mike says. “When they graduate high school, they won’t have a TOD [teacher of the deaf] advocating for them.”
Consider Unique Situations: Again, Mike emphasizes the most important thing the coach of a student with hearing loss can do is ask the child how they prefer to communicate on the field. “Even if you have experience with kids who are deaf or hard of hearing, don’t assume that what worked for one will work for all,” he says.
If a student’s HAT works well and they’re comfortable with it, that’s ideal. But he noted that for some sports, including skiing, swimming, wrestling and cross country, it simply may not be an option. “In those cases, don’t focus on the sound—focus on what works,” Mike continues. The emphasis should be on figuring out whatever system will work for the child. He acknowledges that student-chosen solutions may not always seem ideal, but that they’re still important to try. “We put a safety net under them, but you have to let them fall into the net and figure it out on their own,” he says.
Buddies and Visual Cues: Coaches can help to facilitate selecting a helpful teammate “buddy” designated to pass on verbal direction to the student with hearing loss during times of transition or potential confusion. A coach and student can also work out a series of visual signals to communicate across a field or gym. (Bonus: some of these methods can be a competitive advantage by keeping the other team/coach in the dark.)
Mike also notes that there’s a limit to the support and structure that the coach can provide — they can’t foresee every potential challenge. As such, these scenarios are important opportunities for the student to hone self-advocacy. “As a TOD, I’m a firm believer in not trying to control the environment. I try to teach the kids how to adapt to their environment,” Mike says. “When they leave school, yes, we have the ADA—but that doesn’t mean people always do what they should. It’s easier to figure out the solution that works for you, rather than expect everyone will always make accommodations.”
Empathize and Listen
As much as a student may look forward to their favorite activities, after a year of pandemic-related closures, many children may also feel anxious about returning to in-person events. Mike notes that clubs and sports that are meaningful to a child — especially if the activities help build peer relationships — can aid in the transition back to school. But not all students will have the same response.
To support students re-adjusting to their new routines, teachers and coaches need to hear them out. “As teachers, we tend to spend more time talking than listening,” says Mike, warning that no matter how good the intention, it can send the wrong message. “‘We’re the experts, do as we say,’ doesn’t help them advocate. It shuts them down,” he says. “Kids are the group that gets listened to the least. If they have concerns or worries, listen. These kids understand what is going on more than we think. But they’re often afraid to express it because an adult might tell them they’re wrong.”
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A Student Perspective
We spoke with Vinny, a bilateral cochlear implant user and a student at Hampshire Regional High School in Massachusetts, about the important role of extracurriculars.
Vinny began wrestling in the spring of 2021, at the encouragement of another friend at school who enjoyed the sport. He has found it to be beneficial physically and socially. Vinny previously played football but stopped during the pandemic —and like many of us —wasn’t as fit as usual. “It made me stay active. I had not done football for two years because of COVID. I thought I was going to die at [our first practices]. You have run laps and do flips. It’s hard, but fun,” he says.
During practice and instruction, Vinny wears both of his cochlear implants (CIs) and can receive verbal directions from his coach. But during matches he has to remove the CIs. To communicate during matches, he reads his coach’s lips. (During the pandemic, that means the coach must temporarily remove his face mask.) Without his implants, Vinny can still hear the coach’s whistle. When the whistle blows, if Vinny has a question or needs instruction, he walks up to the coach.
Vinny says that being involved in a sport has given him more confidence. “It can be scary to think about making friends with hearing kids but once you do it, it is easier,” he says. “I have made a lot of friends. In the beginning, I thought I would not make friends. When I started to act [less] nervous, kids talked to me and started to reach out to me.”