If you do a search for “deaf students and masks” or “hard of hearing students and masks,” you’ll see that masks are a huge challenge for many deaf and hard of hearing students who are about to return to school.
Tabby Belhorn from Ohio Hands & Voices, shared a letter she crafted for parents to communicate with school officials:
Dear Parents and Educational Professionals,
As we plan to return to school this fall, we all need to consider the unique needs of our *deaf children and deaf students. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone. Deaf children and their families are not immune to the effects of the novel coronavirus. The coronavirus has made masks a part of our everyday life. And because we have no idea how long this will last, we must prepare for the long haul. This means thinking about accessible communication for our deaf children and students from the time they step onto a bus or sign in for remote learning, to the time they step off the bus or sign out for the day. There are many issues to consider, but this letter will focus on the selection of facial coverings in schools and the impact on deaf students.
Since March, we have seen a variety of different masks, visors, and face shields that are in use: practical, impractical, fun, boring, safe, not safe, homemade, manufactured, or futuristic. Some of the options have even been touted as “the solution” for communicating with deaf students in school. There are two truths; one, there is no right answer, and two, parents and deaf students should be involved in the selection of facial coverings based on IDEA and ADA Title II statutes.
Communication Partners: Selecting the Right Facial Covering
There is no one right answer. The right facial covering to wear to communicate with a deaf child or adults is the one that works best for THEM. Selecting a facial covering that allows for effective communication with a deaf person is as personal a decision as language and communication choice. When selecting a mask or face shield for you to use or request your communication partner to use, there are many considerations to take into account, such as:
- Deaf student’s preferred language
- Deaf student’s preferred communication mode
- Visual access for a deaf student
- Auditory access for a deaf student
- Student and family health risks
- Protection level and cleanliness of each style
- Teacher and staff health risks
- Size and fit
- Reusable vs. disposable
- Sound distortion and levels
As parents and professionals, we might think we have found “the right one,” but the reality is that we shouldn’t decide. The decision which masks or face shields we use should be driven by our deaf communication partner, our deaf children, and our deaf students. At this time, we need to value our child’s preference and qualitative data over quantitative data and cost. We may think a clear mask or visor offers the visual cues our child needs, but our child might not like the glare or the reduced auditory signal. Each type of facial covering has its pros and cons that need to be discussed and considered, and students and parents need to be included in the conversations, starting now, not at the next IEP meeting.
As a parent, I want other parents to know that you and your child have the right to be involved in the decision-making process of what facial coverings your child’s teacher and peers are using. Parents, if your child has a clear preference, you have the right to make a reasonable request of which covering you would like teachers or peers to use. Your request will be carefully balanced with the health, safety, and communication needs of everyone. IEP teams, in which parents are an equal member, will likely need to find creative solutions that are appropriate for everyone’s communication and safety needs. There are two laws that you need to be aware of that support a parent’s right to be included; first is IDEA because it discusses parental and student participation and special considerations for deaf students. Second, ADA Title II addresses effective communication in schools. Schools are still required to follow both of these laws during this pandemic.
Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA or Special Education Law)
One foundational principle of IDEA is a parent’s and student’s involvement in the IEP process, such as goal writing and the decision of which accommodations a student receives. This, by nature, will now also include the decision of facial coverings. Communication access in schools will be greatly reduced this fall by the use of masks. Many parents and districts are being proactive and looking for ways to accommodate and increase communications for deaf students while facial coverings are a mandate. Let’s ensure we are working together to make decisions to benefit our children and students and not making assumptions about the “right” way.
Americans with Disabilities Act Title II (ADA)
ADA Title II states that deaf students are entitled to “effective communication.” This means that deaf students in the classroom have language and communication access that allows them the same learning opportunities and benefits as their peers. Only the student can tell us what is effective and not effective.
What Can You Do?
Parents, keep trying new styles and expose your child to different facial coverings now. Teachers and school staff, start looking at all the options now and help parents understand the options and have as many as possible on hand for parents to see and students to try. Keep wearing, keep learning, and keep researching facial coverings and your school district’s requirements. Everyday information is changing, and new information is being released, and it’s hard to keep it all straight.
When we work together, students, parents, and school staff with open and honest communication, we will overcome barriers and solve problems with creative and effective solutions. Parents and families remember that schools and teachers are in an incredibly difficult position right now. Please be patient and be kind to all school staff. Your child’s teachers want to see them in school again, and they miss your child just as much as you want your child back in school. If all IEP team members keep an open mind and avoid making assumptions about what is “right,” your child will greatly benefit.
For more information, guidance, or help advocating for your deaf child’s educational rights, please contact Ohio Hands & Voices at firstname.lastname@example.org, 844-644-6481 (voice/text), or www.ohiohandsandvoices.org to be connected with one of our educational advocates.
Standing with you in the Hands & Voices spirit, “What works for your child is what makes the choice right.”
Parent of a Deaf Child
Executive Director, Ohio Hands & Voices
ASTra Coordinator Ohio Hands & Voices
Kentucky Hands & Voices also created a PDF for parents: Mask Considerations for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students
Colorado Hands & Voices: Covid and Masks
Hands & Voices: Covid Resources