Working with students who have hearing problems.

Robert Barton 

The occurrence of profound deafness in our society has been steadily declining with improvements in modern treatments. The occurrence of functional deafness, where the person has severely limited hearing, is also declining because of improvements in mechanical hearing assistance. But as martial arts instructors we still may find ourselves in situations where we are working with a student who has deafness or functional deafness during practice or who has physical implants of which we need to be careful. Generally, it is fairly easy to accommodate these challenges in a school or class setting. With a little training to develop basic sign language communication skills and a slight bit of modification to group teaching methods a good instructor can easily include the hearing impaired in his or her program.

 Let’s first examine hearing impairment. We tend to think of hearing impairment as profound deafness or the inability to hear anything at all. Actually hearing impairment can cover many levels from profound deafness to diminished capacity to understand what is being said or differentiate specific sounds in a noisy environment. It is important that we remember that hearing impairment is going to hinder verbal communication and not all communication and so we can easily use other forms of communication to help.  A little planning and some equipment along with moderate changes to approach can pretty much work around these challenges while minimizing how much those challenges effect the class productivity and how much the student seems singled out as different from others.

The first area where we can make rapid changes to how we present information is to make sure that we provide visual physical cues to many of the things being said. So a first step is to make sure those students with hearing challenges are located in a place where they will have direct line of sight with an instructor or assistant who is calling techniques or counting. The preferable way to do this is not to relocate the student in the line up, but to make sure that the person who everyone else is listening to may be seen by these students. So without singling the student out we allow that he or she can easily see directions.  A simple modification to how we count and speak will help here. When we are about to count off techniques we simply raise a hand to give a visual cue the same way we may say “ready” then keep that hand up and clearly seen as we count using our fingers along with our words at the end of a counting series as we say “stop” we simply make a closed fist. When we say things like “first” “second” “third” etc we use the appropriate number of fingers. When we say “left” or “right” we hold out that hand if we are speaking about the left foot we point down at it with the left hand, right hand points at the right foot. If we say left or right hand we shake that hand for a moment. If we say left leg we tap that leg with our hand as we say it. This set of simple visual cues actually will help more clearly communicate to the class in general helping students with average hearing who may actually be primarily visual learners. It is generally preferable for an instructor to learn the basic sign language needed in order to conduct class and I strongly recommend that any instructor of any martial art learn to teach a class using sign language well in advance of ever needing to use it.

How we plan class can have some bearing on how effectively we include the hearing impaired. There are times when a hearing impaired person may have a hearing aid which allows him or her to hear speech but which may need to be removed during intense physical activity because it may fall off or be hit resulting in an injury to the student or damage to the device. In order to keep the student from having to constantly remove and then put the device back on, simply schedule class so that anything that must be explained is covered at one time rather than scattered through the class period. Often putting these explanations at the start of class or right after stretching allows these students to hear the explanations and only have to remove the device once and keep it removed for the rest of class minimizing pauses and disruptions.  While we are talking about devices there are some devices which are implanted and cannot be removed. When dealing with a student with hearing implants we have to deal with them just like any other medical implant. We must make sure that those students have safety equipment on before even minimal contact is made and those students may have to sit out free sparring sections and work on something else such as self defense or prearranged sparring. When deciding what safety equipment to use around or over an implant the equipment must be approved by the doctor who manages the medical issues dealing with the implant.

Along with naming a technique that is about to be practiced the instructor can also show it while calling it, again adding a visual component to the verbal communication. Another approach is for an instructor to learn some very basic sign language for terms such as kick, punch, front, back, left, right, turn and many of the other terms used pretty constantly during class and for basic techniques. Again, a small vocabulary of signs for an instructor can make a huge difference in how well a student with hearing challenges does. Another method is to have a white board with dry erase markers and simply outline the class on that board and position it where it can be seen by these students during practice and then follow the outline.  Honestly, this step can improve overall class organization and should be considered for regular use for all students and classes. The board can also be used to help assist verbal explanations by drawing visual components and this can again assist all students in comprehension.

Along with the white board other equipment can help us better address the needs of hearing challenged students. A simple small pad of paper with a pencil tucked into the uniform or close at hand can be great.  Typed handouts that explain techniques and forms are great and can be given to all students to include in personal martial arts binders, again helping all students in the long run. A flashlight is useful, just a simple small flashlight from any dollar store. If a student is looking away and you need his or her attention you shine the light into his or her line of vision so that he or she sees it and knows that you are calling for attention. But never shine it directly into the eyes; just shine it on the wall floor or ceiling where the student is looking if you need too. My mother kept a flashlight just inside of her door so that if anyone came into the house and she did not see them they could use the flashlight flickering across the walls to alert her so she wouldn't be startled were she in the kitchen or other room. You will also find that students with hearing challenges are very good at perceiving subtle visual clues that most people will not notice. For instance, my mother could notice subtle changes in the light at one end of the house that meant someone had just opened a door at the other end during the day. So you may find that even with their backs turned a hearing challenged student may know when you enter the room and where you are before you even try to call a class to attention.

Lots of simple things can be combined to make the study of martial arts more inclusive of the hearing impaired student and to enable that student to feel more normalized to the group and insure greater success for the student. Something as simple as when an instructor walks into the room and needs to get the attention of the students for the start of class the instructor flicks the lights while calling for the students to line up. These things become a normal part of the teaching methodology and automatically include these students with hearing challenges in the normality of class structure and the concept of who belong both in their minds and in the minds of the other students. There is also a benefit to the other students from the fact that many of them still prefer visual communication even if they have average hearing and will get things faster when the verbal is paired with the visual. As instructors we benefit because this prompts us to make sure that we are running a more organized and well planned class.

And always remember that the student is a person and not the challenge so a student may have deafness but he or she is not deaf. Never say that a student is deaf or hard of hearing only say that the student has hearing loss or deafness and that only when absolutely required. Also remember that there is a very specific culture for people with deafness and their families. This culture has a language and lots of customs that you may not be aware of, so be prepared to learn. If a young adult student with deafness always pulls into the parking lot with the stereo really loud, that's normal. If you get invited to a party or event for a student with deafness take earplugs because the music on the dance floor has to be loud enough to be felt. Fire alarms  have to make beds shake people awake and flash the lights to let people know. Doorbells flick lights and you could knock on a door all day. And some people have dogs to help them with things so what may appear to be a family pet may be a highly trained assistance animal. Also realize that there are some people with deafness who do not use sign language and do not want you to use it with them, there are some parents, usually hearing normal, who forbid their children with deafness to learn or use sign language. As instructors we have to respect the choices of the individual or of the parents even if we do not agree with those choices or think that they are misguided. The only time that this can be an issue is when you have one student who is not allowed to use sign language and another who does use it, if it is a Shorin Goju school sign language will be used in this type of case. For other schools and other instructors, you will have to decide.

Many of these strategies such as flicking the lights, flickering a flashlight and using a whiteboard to outline the class are useful general teaching strategies and can be employed and in place long before the hearing impaired student appears. Many students are visual learners and these techniques can help them and help to organize class. 

***Note that a certified American instructor of Shorin Goju is required to learn to conduct training using Sign Language known as ASL. Shorin Goju instructors are also required to make this training available to instructors of other schools free of charge. Any martial arts instructor is welcomed and encouraged to contact us for assistance in learning to use sign language in his or her teaching.

Here is a link to a site where an instructor can look up signs for many words and terms and which can be a great resource for anyone wishing to learn some sign language.

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