How to Navigate Higher Ed When You Have Hearing Loss

5 Things All Students with Hearing Loss Must Know

By Julia Métraux

Starting a higher-education program is a big step in a person’s life. If you’re an undergraduate student, it may be the first time you have to figure stuff out on your own, without a parent’s help. 

If you’re hard of hearing, this process has another layer. It’s important to make sure that you have appropriate accommodations. Here are five things to keep in mind to help make university life a great, accessible experience.

1. Know your rights

There are laws in the U.S. assuring that people with hearing loss and other disabilities receive reasonable accommodations. If you had accommodations in elementary and/or secondary school, you may have had an IEP or 504 plan, which are not offered at colleges and universities.

Instead, “hard-of-hearing students can seek protection, support, and appropriate accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said David Clark, a lawyer and partner at the Clark Law Office, during an interview with HearingTracker. “ADA also prohibits discrimination in privately owned places of accommodation,” like private universities, he added.

The ADA requires that public universities, classified as Title II entities, and private universities, classified as Title III entities, provide accommodations for effective communication. For people who are hard-of-hearing, this could include such services as:

  1. A notetaker
  2. A sign-language interpreter
  3. Real-time captioning
  4. Written materials

2. Register ASAP with your school’s disability services and ask questions

If you have a diagnosed disability, contact your university’s disability services before the semester starts. This way, you can have the necessary accommodations in place and communicated to your professors before the first day of class. (If you receive a diagnosis after your semester starts, then you should contact disability services as soon as possible.)

The process of registering for disability services varies from university to university. Most institutions will require a form from a healthcare professional, like an audiologist, to confirm a student’s diagnosis. It is also helpful to have paperwork from your last school about which accommodations you received there and how they helped you. Many universities will also give students the option of choosing which professors to notify about their need for accommodations. 

In your first appointment with disability services, consider asking these questions to get a sense of how they can help you. In addition, if you want a specific service, like a notetaker, go ahead and ask for it.

  1. What accommodations have been helpful to people with my disability at this school?
  2. If I think that I need more or different accommodations, what is the process for accessing them?
  3. If, say, a professor doesn’t comply with my accommodations, how does your department step in?
  4. Are there any adaptive technologies that can be used in my classes to better support my disability?
  5. Are there any support groups, lectures, or other activities specifically for students with hearing loss?

3. Advocate for yourself

Even if reasonable accommodations are provided for students with hearing loss, you may still need to take action to get the support you need.

Caroline, a PhD student in London, England, knows this all too well. “I sat in the front of lectures and asked for the lecturers to speak up and speak into the microphones provided. Some would straight up refuse, saying they ‘preferred to walk around,’ which made it even harder to hear,” she told HearingTracker.

If the disability services or another part of the university administration fails to properly step in, you could ask your university’s student government to act, which Caroline did after a professor claimed that Zoom captions were distracting. “I think it’s part of a larger problem, the issue of people being dismissive of disabilities,” she said. “I did ask my student representative to pressure the department to issue guidance to put captions on all Zoom meetings, and the people in the meeting agreed to it.”

4. See where construction on campus is

If you go to a medium- to large-sized university, there is a good chance there will be at least one construction project happening at any given time.

It is well documented that ongoing noise exposure, like that caused by construction, can affect auditory health. For students with hearing loss, these sounds can be a problem for a myriad of reasons. When I was in college, I found that if construction was happening near my classroom, my hearing aids would sometimes amplify the construction noise instead of my professor. This led to me missing what my professor had said, and I was more exhausted by the end of class.

Before registering for classes, it may be a good idea to do some digging to see where construction will take place each semester. This information is usually available on a university’s website, or you could ask your disability services representative for specifics. If possible, it may be better to take a class removed from this noise.

5. Find a community of disabled students

Advocating for your disability during your student years is not always easy. No one knows this better than other students who are in a similar situation. 

While not everyone is open about their disability (which is of course perfectly okay), talking about your experiences with other students could lead to finding others grappling with similar issues. The person you chat with might be hard of hearing or know someone else on campus who has faced the same challenges.

Once you find other disabled students, you can brainstorm how to get your needs met more effectively – plus everyone needs to vent from time to time. Having this kind of supportive network is a real asset as you move through your higher-education experience.