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Supporting Students Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing to Reject Discrimination and Bullying

4 min read

Students at Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) working together to solve a problem in class.

By Scott Gentzke, assistant director, RIT/NTID Student Life Team

Going to school can and should be a richly satisfying experience for students, with opportunities to expand their knowledge, learn new skills, socialize with friends and participate in favorite extracurricular activities. This is especially true after the shift to remote learning that occurred across the nation during the Covid-19 pandemic. But, as we begin a new academic year, it’s important to remember that while some children may be excited to return to school, there are some who may not share similar sentiments due to instances of bullying and discrimination.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 22 percent of students age 12 to 18 reported being bullied in school in 2019, and one in six students revealed that they experienced cyberbullying. A study from Wheelock College of Education & Human Development found that instances of bullying dropped 30 to 40 percent during the pandemic when schools were operating remotely. With the majority of bullying occurring on school grounds, these numbers are expected to rise again as schools continue with in-person learning.

Bullying is defined as aggressive behavior that is repeatedly directed towards others in an attempt to control or harm them, which creates an observed or perceived power imbalance. In general, there are three types of bullying that can occur:

  • Verbal: Oral or written communication with the intent to hurt someone or threaten harm.

  • Physical: Using physical force, causing bodily harm, threatening a person’s space or destroying their belongings/property.

  • Social or Relational: Purposely excluding others, and ridiculing, gossiping or spreading rumors about someone to damage their reputation or relationships with others.

Children who bully often seek to ostracize those they perceive as “different” or “not like the rest of us.” Unfortunately, this frequently includes children who may be singled out for using assistive technology such as hearing aids or cochlear implants, sounding a little different when speaking, using sign language, misreading social cues or receiving support services in school such as speech therapy, real-time captioning, interpreters or notetakers. Specific examples of bullying children who are deaf or hard of hearing can include whispering or speaking softly so the child cannot understand what’s being said, mocking the child’s speech or sign language or purposefully being aggressive when getting the child’s attention such as being rough when tapping their shoulder or screaming their name in an unnecessary and demeaning way.

Students who are the target of bullying are more likely to experience greater mental and physical health challenges that can last into adulthood. Such harmful effects include greater risk of substance use, decreased academic achievement, lower engagement in school activities, frequent absenteeism from school, increased anxiety, depression, feelings of alienation, low sense of self-worth and self-harm or suicide. Students with hearing loss who may already feel they are different than their peers and now are on the receiving end of such harmful and discriminating behaviors can be particularly at risk.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 20 percent of bullying incidents are reported due to fear of retaliation, feeling ashamed or humiliated, fear of being rejected by peers or already feeling socially isolated. For these reasons, it is imperative that educators and caregivers be able to recognize the warning signs of bullying. suggests that abrupt changes in a child could be warning signs. Examples include:

  • Unexplained injuries

  • Lost or destroyed personal items, such as clothing, books, electronics or jewelry

  • Frequent ailments such as headaches or stomach aches (can be real or feigned) to avoid going to school

  • Sudden changes in eating habits — skipping meals or binge eating; coming home hungry after school because they did not eat lunch

  • Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares

  • Declining grades, diminished interest in schoolwork or refusing to go to school

  • Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations

  • Feelings of helplessness or decreased self-esteem

  • Self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, harming themselves or talking about or attempting suicide

When the warning signs are recognized, bullying can be stopped, and the harmful effects can be minimized. Educators and caregivers of children who are deaf or hard of hearing can use the following strategies to help empower them to reject bullying and discrimination:

  • Create safe and trusting relationships among students, teachers, staff, administrators and families, and ensure every child has at least one supportive adult at school. This helps children feel a sense of connection to the school and can help reduce the effects of bullying and discrimination. It also creates a school climate in which the student feels they have a support system that will intervene when reports of bullying are made. At Rochester Institute of Technology, we promote Tigers Care, a campus-wide effort to enhance, promote and sustain a culture of caring and support. We encourage students to show kindness and concern for others and to intervene when others need help.

  • Include goals in students’ Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or a Section 504 that will help students reject bullying and discrimination. Each child’s IEP team — which should include their legal caregivers, educators, school administrators and school psychologists — can create goals related to social skills as well as development of self-advocacy, self-awareness and strength-building.

  • Make sure all students are aware of the school’s anti-bullying and discrimination policies and understand how to recognize and report when such instances occur. Ensure students know who to go to for support.

  • Provide opportunities for students who are deaf or hard of hearing to participate in activities outside the school day and ensure their communication needs are met during these activities. If possible, connect them with other children who are deaf or hard of hearing in the area. [Read Clarke’s article from the spring 2022 issue of Mainstream News on the benefits of developing a pen pal program for students who are deaf or hard of hearing.]

After families, schools are the second most important stabilizing force in a child’s life, especially for children with hearing loss who may be looking for ways to fit in. When educators and caregivers recognize bullying and discrimination as it happens and provide ways to safeguard against future instances, the chances of success in academic and social-emotional realms are increased significantly for children who are deaf or hard of hearing.

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