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College Planning for Deaf & Hard of Hearing Students

Start—and complete—your degree with a little extra help from cutting-edge technology and simple classroom modifications, and learn how online college courses can even the playing field.

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Author: Kathleen Curtis
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Leo Sanada

Leo Sanada is co-founder & CEO of WeAdmit, an organization that guides students on the path to the college that matches their passions and long-term goals. Sanada has a bachelor’s degree in commerce from Meiji University and an MBA from the University of Michigan.

A joyful young woman in a yellow sweater laughs and converses with a man who is gesturing with his hand, both sitting at a table in a warmly lit room, discussing college planning for hard of hearing students.

There’s no doubt that college can be challenging. It’s supposed to be. But for some students, higher education poses unique obstacles that require additional support and resources. For students with hearing impairment, earning a degree often means addressing each of these additional hurdles head-on. Whether it’s finding the right classroom accommodations or taking advantage of online learning, students with hearing loss don’t have to miss out on a high-quality college education just because of their disability.

With over 20,000 deaf or hard of hearing students enrolling in post-secondary institutions annually, colleges across the country are making an effort to help these students succeed. However, with only 30% of hearing-impaired students graduating with a four-year degree, there’s still plenty of work to be done. Learn what steps you can take to increase your chances of college success and find the tools and resources needed to make higher education manageable.

Understanding Hearing Loss: Types & Terms

Because hearing loss comes in different forms, it’s important to first identify the type so you or your child can plan appropriate accommodations. By doing this early on, you’ll be more prepared when it’s time to start college.

Common Types of Hearing Loss

Hearing loss falls into three categories:

  1. Sensorineural Hearing Loss

Sensorineural hearing loss takes place when a nerve within your inner ear suffers damage. The most frequent type of hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss can be due to disease, injury, loud noises, medications, or genetics. This type of hearing loss is difficult to treat, however hearing aids have proven effective.

  1. Conductive Hearing Loss

If sound waves can’t reach your inner ear, you may be dealing with conductive hearing loss. Typically your middle ear becomes blocked, making it harder for sound to move. Examples of blockage include fluid, bone abnormalities, ear wax, or foreign objects. Surgery and medicine can sometimes help.

  1. Mixed Hearing Loss

Mixed hearing loss occurs when you have a combination of both types of hearing loss. As a child, you may first encounter conductive hearing loss and need tubes in your ears. Later, you could develop sensorineural issues due to disease or injury. Mixed hearing loss takes many forms; you’ll need to work closely with your doctor to determine if hearing aids, surgery, or medicine could help.

Appropriate Terminology

When you’re talking about hearing loss or deafness, it’s important to use the most accurate terms, both with medical professionals and when working with college staff. Keep reading to learn more about appropriate terminology in this section.

  1. deaf

This word is a medical term used by doctors and audiological specialists rather than by members of the Deaf community. If you see “deaf” used outside the medical field, it typically refers to someone with hearing loss who does not actually identify as part of the Deaf community.

  1. Deaf (capital D)

Using the word “Deaf” with a capital D signifies someone who identifies themselves as Deaf and takes part in the culture and community of other deaf individuals, which includes using American Sign Language (ASL).

  1. Deafened/late-deafened

This term explains someone who loses their hearing later in life. Because of this, they may find it more difficult to relate to members of deaf or hard of hearing communities.

  1. Hard of hearing

Using the phrase “hard of hearing” is appropriate when you or someone you know has some hearing loss (ranging from incidental to extreme) but still uses speech as the primary form of communication. Both medical professionals and communities use this term.

  1. Hearing-impaired

This phrase has fallen out of use for explaining an individual or group who experiences hearing loss but is still acceptable in medical use. Doctors may use it to refer to a specific condition; otherwise, the term does not adequately explain the differences between hard of hearing and deaf.

Hard of Hearing & Heading to College: Making the Transition to Higher Education

While high school students have support services in place thanks to individualized educational plans (IEPs), college means starting over and setting up new support systems. The onus to ask for accommodations and disability services falls on the student, making it important that they communicate their needs to staff and faculty as soon as possible. Students who find it difficult to discuss these subjects may want to email their professors, resident directors, and others to set up services long before the first day of class.

Deaf and hard of hearing students may initially face greater challenges than the average student. However, there are plenty of steps they can take to ease the transition and get support along the way.

College Accommodations for Students with Hearing Loss

To create the differentiated learning experience deaf and hard of hearing students need to thrive, students and their schools will need to assess which accommodations will be most beneficial. Learn more about a few of the most common types of accommodations below.

Assistive Technology

Assistive technology is created specifically to help individuals with disabilities perform tasks that they may otherwise find difficult or unable to do without assistance. Assistive technology has increased exponentially in the last decade, providing a variety of options for deaf and hard of hearing students.

Some common examples of assistive technologies include:

Inductive Loop Systems

These tools allow students to directly hear their instructor’s voice via an electromagnetic field that delivers sound straight to their hearing aid. This technology only works for students who use a telecoil hearing aid.

FM Systems

Designed to work with cochlear implants, hearing aids, and headphones, FM systems are similar to inductive loop systems but don’t rely on telecoil hearing aids. Instructors wear a specialized microphone that transmits sound to students’ listening devices.

Infrared Systems

Using infrared light waves to transmit sound, these systems allow students to receive voice transmissions from their professors. Because the systems rely on natural light, students must be seated close to the light emitter for the system to work effectively.

Soundfield Systems

Designed to work in classrooms with more than one deaf or hard of hearing student, these augmenting devices provide a specialized speaker positioned close to the learner. Instructors use a special microphone to transmit sound.

Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART)

These devices translate the spoken word into text in real time. Available via computers and smartphones, CART technologies make it easier for students to follow the conversations between their professors and fellow students.

Accessible Instructional Materials

These technologies help convert traditional instructional materials into formats that better serve deaf or hard of hearing students. The materials tend to be more interactive and include services such as captioning and speech-to-text.

Classroom Accommodations & Modifications

While assistive technologies greatly improve the experiences of deaf and hard of hearing college students, professors and staff can do more things to support these learners. Classroom accommodations and modifications reduce anxiety and level the playing field for students.

Some common examples of classroom accommodations and modifications include:


During class a deaf or hard of hearing student may be struggling to understand complex course material, trying to lip-read what the professors and peers are saying, and trying to capture it all in clear and helpful notes. A personal note-taker or classroom assistant can help with this task so the student can focus on being in the moment and immerse themselves in learning.

Modified Seating Arrangements

Whether a student is hard of hearing or relies fully on lip reading, seating arrangements can make a world of difference. Those who lip-read must clearly see their instructors, and those with limited hearing must be closer to the professor so they can hear them better than if they were in the back of the classroom.

Modified Coursework

Simple changes make a big difference for students with hearing challenges. Rather than verbalizing instructions, professors can provide a written page outlining steps and requirements. Rather than requiring a student to participate in an oral exam, a professor can provide a written option. Modifications like these give a student the chance to show what they know rather than getting tripped up by formats and procedures.

Alternative Testing Services

Depending on the subject, some students may need more time to complete an exam or may need a separate space away from other students so they can focus. This is especially true for subjects that require additional reading to complete assignments.

Reduced Visual Distractions

Because deaf and hard of hearing students rely on their vision to know where to look and who to watch, removing superfluous visual distractions helps them stay focused.

Visual Supplements

Rather than relying solely on a lecture for sharing new course material, professors can add more visual cues to help deaf and hard of hearing learners. For example, the professor could write more notes on the whiteboard, provide lecture outlines, or offer course notes.

Useful Apps for Hearing Impaired Students

In addition to the accommodations and modifications available to college students with hearing challenges, plenty of free and paid apps are available to help make the university experience more seamless. Check out these reviews of three top options, all available for Android and iOS devices.


This app creates live transcriptions even when multiple people are speaking. Deaf and hard of hearing students may find it difficult to distinguish between multiple people talking at once, so this app brings a real-time transcription of everyone who is speaking.

Subtitle Viewer

A great tool for students whose first language is not English, this app instantly translates subtitles into more than 100 languages on a student’s phone. Use it for lectures, group project meetings, and other types of media.

P3 Mobile

P3 Mobile allows deaf and hard of hearing students to easily send video messages. This app can prove especially useful when giving presentations or participating in group work.

Benefits of Online Learning for Hearing Impaired Students

Online learning has continued growing in popularity over the last decade, with millions of learners using it for the first time during the pandemic. This format offers unique benefits for students with hearing challenges. Learn more about a few of those benefits in this section.

Ability to learn at your own pace

Rather than trying to keep the same pace as your classmates and professors in real time, online learning allows you to watch prerecorded lectures and participate in threaded forum discussions. For students with hearing challenges, this learning style can be less stressful and allow them to get more out of the coursework.

Higher quality interactions with professors and peers

While in-person learning typically depends on verbal communication to convey course content, set assignments, and manage interactions, online learning is more likely to rely on written communication. By using emails, chats, and texts, students with hearing challenges can ensure they don’t miss any critical information.

Greater access to course content

When learning on campus, lectures and review sessions take place in real time and offer few if any opportunities to recap information later. However in many cases online learning offers prerecorded materials that students can look at as often and for as long as they find necessary.

Use of closed captioning

When information is prerecorded, the university can provide a closed-captioning system that shows what the professor and any in-person students are saying via text on the screen. This allows learners with hearing challenges the opportunity to focus fully on the words rather than trying to lip-read or review a transcript that doesn’t sync with the video footage.

Lower levels of anxiety

Deaf or hard of hearing students often feel greater anxiety in campus-based classrooms as they worry that they will miss something important or feel like they don’t know what’s going on. Online learning makes it easier to focus on the material.

From the Expert: Succeeding in College as a Student with Hearing Impairment

Leo Sanada is co-founder & CEO of WeAdmit, an organization that guides students on the path to the college that matches their passions and long-term goals. Sanada has a bachelor’s degree in commerce from Meiji University and an MBA from the University of Michigan.

Q: What’s the most important thing students with hearing impairments should know about transitioning to college?

A: Students with hearing impairments should know that in college, they are in control when it comes to requesting resources and accommodations. While it may be intimidating to talk to your professors, college advisor, or dorm RA about your needs, it will benefit you in creating a better and more positive college experience. Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask for help!

Q: Where can students facing burnout turn for help at their college?

A: Students with hearing impairments are just like any other student. There are resources out there you can utilize to accommodate these learners. These include captioning and transcription tools that translate speech to text for lectures. Also, be open and understanding if a deaf or hard of hearing student asks for assistance, whether it’s giving them alternative completion options for homework assignments, additional time for exams, etc.

Q: What are some of your favorite resources for college students with hearing impairments?

A: Make sure you get familiar with your campus disability resources center. They’ll be able to answer your questions on what services are available and the process for requesting these services. The disability resources center also can connect you with campus support groups where you’ll meet other like-minded students. You may also be able to access an interpreter to assist you with your communication needs on and off-campus.

Q: What advice do you have for students deciding whether to study in person or online?

A: There are pros and cons to studying in person vs. online. With COVID-19 and video-recordings for college lectures making online studying widely acceptable, it’s perfectly okay to attend school at home, especially if you want to save money or have personal responsibilities that you can only manage at home.

However, I do encourage students to try attending school in person if possible, because part of the benefits of attending college are to meet other students, expand your horizons, and have experiences you would never get if you only learned online. Ultimately, what’s most important is how college prepares you for your future career; both in-person and online schools will help you accomplish that.

Resource for Deaf & Hard of Hearing Students

This article in Farrago magazine provides an inside look and what it’s like to be a college student with hearing challenges and highlights some of the services available on campus.

In operation for nearly 50 years, this membership group focuses on supporting university professors who prepare teachers to educate deaf and hard of hearing learners.

The Listening and Spoken Language Knowledge Center provides a list of organizations and state governments that provide scholarships and other types of financial aid.

The University of Washington provides a great example of the types of accommodations commonly offered to deaf and hard of hearing students and what you can ask for upon reaching campus.

This every-other-year event brings together deaf students from top colleges to participate in a quiz-style competition.

This advocacy group helps K-12 and college students with hearing challenges find the resources needed to thrive.

TheNew York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities provides a great example of the city/state-level awards you may find. Check with your local governments to learn about opportunities.