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Preparing Middle and High School Students with Hearing Loss to Self-Advocate in College and Beyond

5 min read
Middle and high school students are preparing for important transitions in their lives. Families and educators play an essential role in supporting them during this critical time.

The month of May brings more than long days and beautiful blooms; for children with hearing loss, their families and the professionals who work with them, it’s also Better Hearing and Speech Month (BHSM)—originally launched by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). This month-long annual campaign presents opportunities to raise awareness around disabilities related to hearing and speech, the importance of hearing health, best practices in accessibility and much more.

For 2023 the theme is “Building a Strong Foundation.” At first, a “foundation” in education may bring to mind the youngest students—who are learning skills like reading, basic arithmetic and the social-emotional (SEL) capabilities necessary to become successful in school.

But older students—in middle and high school—are building foundations, too. They are forming the building blocks to support the next phase of their lives. In the case of high school students, that next phase may be continuing their education at the college level or beginning their career path. And while many of the foundational skills for college and work overlap, there are also significant differences in how families and educators can support these students transitioning out of high school.

“When a student is in high school, transition planning should be a focus, especially in their later high school years,” says Britt Coffey, PhD, Clarke’s mainstream services supervisor for Massachusetts. “What are they interested in? What kind of career are they considering? The earlier you start these conversations, the better.” For students with hearing loss, the changes in what kind of support and accommodation they can—or can no longer—expect to receive should also be part of the conversation.

Preparing for College

Britt notes that students headed to college first need to think about the kinds of entrance tests they may be required to take, and what kinds of accommodations they may need to ask for on those exams.

As they start narrowing down the schools they want to apply to, they’ll need to look at which schools not only accommodate their academic and social goals, but also offer a welcoming and supportive environment that will meet their needs as a person with hearing loss.

“It’s really important to know what the school can offer the student for accommodations and also to get a sense of the community offered by that college,” says Britt. “I advise prospective students to contact the disability services department for their top three schools. This is a good way for students to practice advocating at the college level.”

For more information on the college search, see our Mainstream News article, “College Search Considerations for Students who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing,” contributed by the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID).

Joining the Workforce

While planning is equally important for students who seek additional education and those who are looking to start their careers, what that planning entails is dramatically different.

For students who will enter the job market after high school, planning should focus on what kind of work they want to do, as well as understanding what their rights and responsibilities are for securing accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

“Young people entering the workforce need to learn about the ADA, and employers’ responsibility to accommodate hearing loss on the job,” says Britt. “They also need to know how to professionally engage in conversations about what they need as a person with hearing loss. The world of work is a different environment than school.”

Whether a student’s next step is a job or more education, one piece of preparation is the same: Understanding how to become a more independent self-advocate. Britt notes that when students are in school, they may be involved in accommodations discussions, like those taking place in IEP meetings, but there’s always someone else responsible for addressing challenges and finding solutions.

“The day after they graduate from high school, there is no one doing that for them,” she says. “They’re going to have to explain their needs, respectfully disagree, and negotiate with professors and/or employers about accommodations. Caregivers and teachers have to be thinking about how to get students as prepared as possible to be independent in these areas.”

Meeting Academic and Social Milestones During Transition

Britt Coffey
Britt Coffey, PhD, Clarke’s Mainstream Services Supervisor for Massachusetts

While high school students are tackling this transition planning, they’re also facing one of the more challenging periods in their educational careers.

In earlier grades, children are learning how to learn; in high school, learning skills aren’t actively taught in the same way. Older students are expected to handle higher-level academics such as reading and analyzing complex texts, writing in different formats such as persuasive or didactic essays, making presentations or working in groups.

Those can be challenging for any student but may be especially difficult for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. “Think about the challenges of a class presentation for a student with hearing loss,” Britt says. “Besides the purely academic piece of it, the student needs to feel confident speaking in front of the class, needs to advocate to hear questions asked by their teacher or classmates, and ask for what they need so they have access to hear other students’ presentations.” She adds that students need to explicitly work on the skills needed to navigate situations like this.

Anyone old enough to have been through high school likely remembers how socially fraught it often felt. Those challenges can also be magnified for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. Britt notes that something as simple as being assigned a new lab partner can feel daunting. “If you haven’t talked to this other student before, you may need to explain your hearing loss, how to use the mic and that you may need to see their face to help understand what they’re saying,” Britt explains.

The high school years are also a time when students may find a social group where they feel they belong. If you’re the only student in your school who is deaf or hard of hearing, you may already feel like there are no other students who can truly “get” you. For that reason, Britt says it’s critical that students connect with other children who have hearing loss.

“We’re always comparing ourselves to the people around us; that’s human nature. So these children are comparing themselves to peers with typical hearing. Having a hearing loss peer group means you have someone you can talk to,” she says. “It also means you can quickly acknowledge you have this shared characteristic—and then move on and just talk about typical teenage things.”*

With the ability to self-advocate and the support of caregivers and educators, students who are deaf or hard of hearing can thrive during these transitions. To encourage thoughtful consideration of next steps, initiate casual conversations about their academic interests, personal strengths, career goals and aspirations. This is an important step in the journey of any student, and the enthusiasm of caring adults in their life will go a long way.

*For tips on facilitating pen pal relationships between students who are deaf or hard of hearing, read “Pen Pal Friendships Connect Students,” from Mainstream News spring 2022.

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