Autumn 2007
ISSN 1477-1241

Ensuring Student Success for d/Deaf1 and Hard of Hearing Students at MMU

Improving the Learning Environment

1. Introduction

While much attention in the UK university sector has focused on delivering accessible Higher Education from the legal point of view, (eg the Disability Discrimination Act Part IV), there is also a moral and professional obligation for HE to provide an inclusive experience for students. This paper reports on some aspects of a University-wide project which explored the learning and teaching experiences of d/Deaf and hard of hearing (dD/HH) students at MMU. The paper focuses on the role of learning environments in success for dD/HH students. A subsequent article in Learning and Teaching in Action will explore the role of other factors such as technology, communication tactics and social setting.

dD/HH students encounter many difficulties as a result of their disability, primarily related to communication with others. Others may be completely unaware of a hearing impairment because deafness is often manifest as a hidden disability (Taylor and Palfreman-Kay 2000). Ironically, because the primary difficulties faced by dD/HH students relate to communication, this community of students are probably least likely to communicate to their tutors or peers that any difficulties or problems exist.

Data for the period 2000-2004 provided by the National Disability Team and presented by Gravestock (2006) indicated that for first year undergraduates in the UK an average of 5% (c.32,000) of all students disclosed some form of disability. Of these, 6.1% (c.1990) disclosed deafness or hearing impairment. Data from the mid-1990’s indicates that the number of disabled students in HE is increasing. This partly reflects the increasing numbers of students entering HE but probably also reflects the larger number of students who are willing to disclose, in an increasingly disability-aware, inclusive environment. This is, in part, a reflection of the impact that the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) has had in HE.


2. The Deaf Community at MMU

Data from the Royal National Institute for the Deaf (RNID) indicate that there are 8.7 million deaf and hard of hearing people in the UK which equates to c.14% of the population. Around 72% of these are over 60 years of age. British Sign Language (BSL) is used by 50,000 people and 128,000 people under 65 became deafened (ie severely or profoundly deafened) in childhood or adulthood.

At MMU, around 70 students per year disclose deafness or hearing impairment (Learning Support, pers com). This represents less than 0.5% of the total disabled student population at MMU. However, the actual number of deaf students may be considerably higher because many may choose not to disclose. Some may also be unaware that they have a hearing impairment. The number of deaf students at MMU is likely to increase as the number of mature students entering HE increases (because older people make up a much larger proportion of the total deaf population).


3. Aims of the Research

This paper presents some findings from a larger project which sought to find answers to research questions including:

  1. What difficulties do dD/HH students encounter in learning activities in different learning environments?
  2. What are the most important factors that contribute to these difficulties?
  3. What is the relative importance of a range of social, medical, practical and academic factors in contributing to these difficulties?
  4. What adjustments can be made to alleviate these difficulties to create a more inclusive learning environment for dD/HH students?

The objectives of the overall project are to:

  1. Identify and categorise barriers to effective learning and communication for d/Deaf and hard of hearing students in different learning environments;
  2. Assess the relative importance of different factors that constitute barriers to success for d/Deaf and hard of hearing (dD/HH) students;
  3. Provide guidelines for tutors on adjustments that could be applied to increase inclusivity for dD/HH students in relation to specific learning activities for different subject areas within MMU;
  4. Recommend practical ways in which effective staff training can be provided to raise awareness of the needs of dD/HH students and to maximise the opportunities for their success in HE.

The findings of this action research project can be directly implemented to improve academic practice at MMU. Research by others indicates that improvements put in place for the specific benefit of one group of disabled students usually has the effect of having a positive impact on other students (Smith 1997, Richardson et al 2004, Angelides and Aravi 2007).


4. Methods

All students at MMU who have disclosed a deafness or hearing impairment (c.70) were invited to respond to a questionnaire survey. A total of 35 surveys were completed and returned and the high response rate was aided by a Prize Draw. Respondents covered a wide range of study modes including foundation, undergraduate and postgraduate students, studying on a full time, part-time and distance learning basis. The survey addressed four main groups of questions:

  • Information about the student’s study (eg course, mode, level);
  • Information about the student’s deafness (eg severity, use of technical and human aids to communication);
  • Student learning and teaching experiences in a wide range of contexts (eg large lecture theatres, groupwork, assessment);
  • Experiences of e-Learning in a wide range of contexts (eg email communication, PowerPoint presentations, online resources).

Most of the questions required a box to be ticked to indicate one of the options of strongly agree, agree, not sure, disagree and strongly disagree to a range of statements about their learning and teaching experiences. Respondents were requested to leave boxes blank if the statement did not apply to them. The questionnaire also gave ample opportunity for respondents to provide comments.

One-to-one informal interviews were subsequently conducted with ten of the respondents who expressed a willingness to do so. Interviews were structured but informal and explored issues raised by the questionnaire in greater depth. Interviewees were selected such that a balance was achieved in terms of (a) severity of deafness, (b) gender, (c) age, (d) subject studied and (e) mode of study. Material obtained during interviews is being collated into a series of anonymised case studies which explore particular learning environments, technological, social and environmental issues in relation to dD/HH students. These case studies will form the basis for the compilation of case studies referred to in the outputs section below.


5. Results: The Students and their Deafness

Of the 35 respondents, there were 14 males and 21 females. Only two students chose to respond anonymously. Most of the students were either in the 18-22 age group (37%) or over 40 years (34%) (Figure 1). The respondents covered a wide range of courses (including sciences, the arts, social care, education and business) across all seven faculties.

Figure 1: The age profile (%) of survey respondents

Students were asked about the severity of their deafness and while the majority (40%) regarded themselves as ‘moderately’ deaf, there was also a significant number of severely (25%) or profoundly (23%) deaf students (Figure 2). The categories mild, moderate, severe and profound describe decibels (dB) of hearing and are widely used terms (Figure 3). The proportions do not match those in the population as a whole, where only 8% have severe to profound deafness (RNID). This difference is also reflected in the much higher number of respondents who were either born deaf or deafened in early childhood (73% of the total). Only four of the respondents were sign language users (although only one of these regarded sign language as their first language). Half (50%) suffered from tinnitus (noises such as ringing or buzzing in the ears – commonly associated with deafness), and of these sufferers, 44% said this affected their ability to study on a daily basis.

Figure 2: The deafness profile (%) of survey respondents

Figure 3: An audiogram showing the different bands of hearing loss

Two thirds of respondents considered themselves to be lipreaders to some degree and 74% of these felt that communication was at least moderately affected if they were unable to see a person’s lips. Two thirds of respondents used one or two hearing aids (65%) and 35% made use of sign language interpreters, note-takers or communication support workers. Most students indicated that they made use of technical aids to communication (TACs).


6. Learning Environments

While the survey addressed a range of learning and teaching issues concerning the experience of dD/HH students at MMU, this paper focuses on the physical learning environment. The findings suggest that there are particular issues associated with different types of learning space such as large lecture theatres, small teaching rooms, computer classes, laboratories and the online ‘virtual’ environment. Specific issues relating to these are addressed below. However, there were two issues which appear to be generic. The first of these is the issue of background noise. The survey indicated that the biggest single factor in adversely affecting the classroom experience of deaf and hard of hearing students was that of background noise. Sources of background noise cited in the survey included air conditioning, open windows, open doors, outside traffic noise, other students talking, machinery (in laboratories), data projectors, and wind and general weather conditions (on fieldwork). One student also cited poor acoustics generally. The second issue is that of the consequences of students not hearing instructions. For example, it was felt that there could be serious consequences if students missed instructions given out in an examination setting - one student was concerned that they might be accused of cheating if they did not stop writing at the end because they did not hear the invigilator announce that time was up. Additionally, there could potentially be serious consequences if a student did not hear important health and safety warnings during a laboratory class.

Students were asked about their experiences in relation to different learning environments. The findings are reported below:

6.1 Lecture Theatres and Large Classes

An impressive 69% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed they had experienced barriers relating to their deafness that had a negative impact on their learning during lectures and large classes (Figure 4). Some of the key sources of these barriers are indicated below.

Figure 4: Level of agreement by survey respondents with the statement
"I have experienced barriers relating to my deafness that have had a negative impact on my learning during lectures and large classes"

  SA = strongly agree
  A = agree
  NS = not sure
   D = disagree
   SD=strongly disagree


  • Because of the sheer size of the rooms there is often a large distance between student and lecturer (even if the student sits at the front) – this makes it difficult to lipread (the optimum distance between a person speaking and a person lipreading them is 2-3m).
  • Few hearing students occupy the front row seats and so some deaf students avoid doing so as it reinforces their isolation.
  • Students who rely on lipreading have difficulties if lecturers move around or have their back to the audience.
  • Students who rely on lipreading often find it difficult to do so in poor lighting conditions. Lecturers often turn lighting down to show PowerPoint presentations.
  • Students who use a loop have difficulties if lecturers (a) do not switch the microphone on, or (b) move away from it. Respondents reported incidents of lecturers not knowing how to switch the microphone on, or refusing to use it even when asked. Many rooms (including large lecture theatres) either do not have a loop system installed, or it is not very effective.
  • Students with mild to moderate hearing loss struggle more if there is background noise. The main culprits are (a) open windows with traffic noise from outside, (b) internal mechanical noise such as projectors and air conditioning, and (c) other students talking.
  • Deaf students often struggle to hear other students asking questions or responding to questions from the lecturer. Some suggested that if a student asked a question, the lecturer should repeat it to the whole group.

Tom’s2 hearing deteriorated later in life and so he does not lipread. Voice projection is therefore the most important thing for Tom. He would like all lecturers to have voice projection training to encourage a suitable volume, clarity, crispness and fluency. Tom says lecturers often speak in a lecture theatre as though they were having a one-to-one conversation.

Mike takes part in a discussion seminar series for c.12 students which takes place in a large lecture theatre! This means that wherever he sits, he is either looking at the back of students’ heads or has his back to them. In either case it is impossible to lipread. Mike feels this is a completely inappropriate room in which to hold classes of this type. The result is that he does not contribute to these classes at all and can only follow a limited proportion of the discussion being held. He has a notetaker so he can read about what was said afterwards….

6.2 Small Classrooms

When asked whether they had experienced barriers relating to their deafness that had a negative impact on their learning during small group activities in small classrooms there was a bi-modal distribution of responses (Figure 5). Almost half (49%) of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they had experienced barriers, while 40% disagreed or strongly disagreed. The difference may reflect different classroom layouts or different practices in managing group activities. Some of the key sources of barriers are indicated below.

Figure 5: Level of agreement by survey respondents with the statement
"I have experienced barriers relating to my deafness that have had a negative impact on my learning during small group discussions (eg seminars and tutorials "

  SA = strongly agree
  A = agree
  NS = not sure
   D = disagree
   SD=strongly disagree


  • Small group discussions are often held in rooms which are inappropriate in size or seating layout (Figure 6).
  • It is important for most deaf students (who lipread to some extent) to be able to see all of the people who may be contributing to a discussion or seminar.
  • Seminars need to make use of ‘ground rules’ such as (a) only allowing one person to speak at a time, (b) asking all speakers to ‘show themselves’ before speaking, (c) the tutor repeating to the group any comments or questions from ‘the floor’.
  • Background noise is often a problem. Sources are the same as for lecture theatres but conversational noise from small group activities is also a major difficulty in small classrooms.
  • Loop systems and other sound equipment are usually not available in smaller classrooms (and would often be inappropriate anyway for group activities).
  • Students working in small groups should be made aware of the need to be inclusive to all students.
large lecture theatre

Figure 6: Wonderful though this lecture theatre is - is it a suitable learning environment for a small group discussion?

Jenny says that group discussions should be laid out in a better way – like a ‘U’ shape with the tutor at the centre so that she can see all of the other students as well as the tutor.

Seminars are the worst for David. There are about 50 students in his group, split into sub-groups of about 8 students each. They all work in their groups in the same room and the noise is “ballistic”. He cannot hear anything because it is too noisy so he gives up and asks his friends afterwards what has been said. He also gets headaches because of the stress of trying to follow conversations. He would much prefer it if the groups could work in separate rooms. There are other rooms available – he would like to ask his group to move to another room but he doesn’t because he does not want to stand out – he wants to ‘fit in’.

6.3 Computer Classes

When asked if they have difficulty following oral instructions about how to use online or other computer-based applications (ie in computer-based classes), 27% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed while 55% disagreed or strongly disagreed (Figure 7). There are essentially two major difficulties for dD/HH students in computer-based classes:

Figure 7: Level of agreement by survey respondents with the statement
"I have difficulty following oral instructions about how to use online or other computer-based applications"

  SA = strongly agree
  A = agree
  NS = not sure
   D = disagree
   SD=strongly disagree



  • The layout of computer rooms is often such that many students have their backs to the tutor (Figure 8). This makes it very difficult to lipread (see Lisa’s story below).
  • Computers usually produce a lot of background noise which makes it difficult to hear instructions. It also has a tendency to aggravate tinnitus.

Lisa finds it difficult in computer labs because while working on the computer she invariably has her back to the tutor. She has to turn round to see the tutor, but this means she cannot ‘listen’ and do computing at the same time so she ends up getting behind. She relies very heavily on her mates to show her what to do and enable her to catch up.

computer room

Figure 8: This computer room makes for an excellent social learning space but the layout means students often have their backs to the tutor

6.4 Laboratories

When asked about their experience of practical and laboratory classes, 18% agreed that they had experienced barriers relating to their deafness that had a negative impact on their learning. However, 61% agreed or strongly agreed that their experience of practical and laboratory classes would be greatly improved if instructions and supporting material were provided online before the activity took place. Of course, this study did not survey hearing students but it seems probable that hearing students would also have agreed with the positive impact of providing preparatory material. There are three main difficulties for dD/HH students in laboratory classes:

  • In some large classrooms, such as some laboratories, it is physically impossible to see the lecturer (Figure 9, also refer to Lisa’s story below).
  • There is often a lot of background noise in laboratories. Additional sources are machinery, vents, oven fans and other equipment. Laboratories can be exceptionally large rooms and tend to have relatively poor acoustics.
  • As previously stated, there is the potential for serious health and safety consequences if students do not hear instructions in a laboratory (or field) environment.

The worst thing for Lisa at MMU is the labs. There are huge pillars which block the view from the student benches to the lecturer. Even if the lecturer uses the microphone it isn’t any good because she still cannot see their face and the sound quality is very poor. She tries to sit in a good position but this doesn’t work if the lecturers walk around and get hidden behind the pillars.

computer lab with pillars

Figure 9: This state-of-the-art laboratory is not well designed for dD/HH students as the pillars make it difficult to see the lecturer!

6.5 Online Environment

There was generally a great deal of support for the online environment among the respondents, although several had no experience of its use in their studies. One striking finding was that 33% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed (51% disagreed or strongly disagreed) that they preferred groupwork and discussions via email, message boards, online chat and SMS compared with face-to-face. This probably reflects the huge difficulties that some dD/HH students face in communicating with tutors and peers, and supports the notion that the online environment tends to iron out the differences between people, often rendering it a more inclusive environment than face-to-face. The key positive aspects of the online environment are:

  • Deaf students often find it much less stressful to read than to listen. This is particularly the case in groupwork and discussion situations.
  • Online learning resources are there as a back-up for anything that has been missed or not understood when delivered orally.
  • dD/HH students find it reassuring to know that online learning resources are available and also that they can use the online environment for peer-to-peer and peer-to-student communication and support.

Tom thinks WebCT is brilliant – he loves it! He relies on WebCT and wanted to make a point of saying how important it is in enabling him to catch up with materials and information he has missed in classes because of his deafness. The only thing is, he would prefer it if all lecturers would update their material more often! Also, he would like to see a more consistent approach so that all lecturers put a minimum of material in WebCT – this would make it an even more reliable source of information for him.


7. Ensuring Success for dD/HH Students at MMU

There are a number of examples of ways in which MMU has responded positively to the requirements of the DDA IV. For example, the Revised Disability Equality Scheme (RDES 2007) commits MMU to a proactive stance on eradicating all forms of discrimination against disabled students. This includes the intention to “promote positive attitudes towards disabled people” (p7), to “develop an inclusive learning, teaching and working environment” (p8) and to “remove any barriers to accessing education, facilities or support to ensure disabled students achieve the highest level of programme outcomes appropriate to their motivation and ability” (p8). The RDES also establishes a clear management structure for addressing and implementing issues of equality for disabled students and of involving such students in the entire process. Another example of the way MMU has responded positively to the DDA IV is reflected in the re-vamped Learning Support web site. The site now provides opportunities for disabled students to participate in a Disabled Students Forum and provides a range of resources for staff on teaching disabled students. Some basic guidance on adaptations to learning and teaching situations for dD/HH students.

However, evidence from current dD/HH students indicates that there is still work to be done in terms of the physical learning environment, to maximise the chances of success for these students. In order to raise the standards in the provision for dD/HH students at MMU there are many solutions implicit in the analysis of the learning environments highlighted above. These can be summarised in two main categories:

7.1 Practical Steps to Inclusive Learning Environments

  1. Commit to a long term plan of installing fixed sound and loop systems in all large classes and lecture theatres and make portable microphone and loop systems available for all other classes. The latter could be made available on an ad hoc basis from reception areas in much the same way as cinema-goers can request a portable loop from the ticket office. This would help to redress the fact that there are hearing-aid users who do not disclose their disability in the formal way.
  2. Provide training for all teaching staff in the use of the aforementioned equipment.
  3. Conduct a formal, institution-wide audit of the suitability of teaching rooms for dD/HH students (including sources of background noise and consideration of room layout) and modify where necessary.
  4. Modify room booking protocols to ensure that the right type of room is booked for the planned activity (this is good practice anyway).
  5. Assess the potential risks associated with students not hearing instructions given in laboratory classes and in examination settings and develop simple protocols to ensure that all students are aware of key instructions when given (this may include providing written instructions simultaneously with oral instructions).

7.2 Developing a Culture of Inclusivity in Learning

  1. Give priority to the raising of deaf awareness through mandatory training for all staff and the incorporation of ‘deaf aware’ practices in everyday teaching. This should focus on communication tactics in relation to different learning activities and in different physical learning environments.
  2. Use ‘ground rules’ in all teaching classes where interactivity (eg peer-to-peer or tutor-to-student) takes place. Particular emphasis should be given to the implementation of ground rules (see section 6.2) in seminars and learning activities involving small groups. This is good practice anyway and prepares all students for formal meetings in the workplace.
  3. Develop a culture of inclusivity among students and raise awareness of diversity by including discussion and/or teaching of diversity and inclusion as a formal component of core or key skills modules.
  4. Make greater use of the online environment to provide teaching resources to support dD/HH students. This could include online communication support (eg virtual office hours for students who find textual conversation less stressful than oral conversations). This might also benefit other groups of disabled and non-disabled students, such as those who are shy.

In a review of the support arrangements for deaf students at Sheffield Hallam University (Smith 1997), it was concluded that two key provisions were necessary to ensure appropriate ongoing support for deaf students: (a) the continuous monitoring and review of support provision, and (b) the implementation of necessary administrative, technical and academic frameworks. The recommendations made in section 7.1 and 7.2 point to the need for similar provisions at MMU.


8. Conclusions

8.1 Outputs from this Research

The intention has always been that this action research would result in practical guidance that would improve the quality of the learning and teaching experience for dD/HH students. Guidance is being prepared and will be targeted at academic staff, who have the greatest day-to-day opportunities to realise these ambitions. Guidance will be in the form of:

  1. web-based resources,
  2. face-to-face staff development or CPD workshop, and
  3. a compilation of case studies for internal distribution.

Material obtained during interviews will be collated into a series of anonymous case studies which explore particular learning environments, technological, social and environmental issues in relation to dD/HH students. In addition to a number of poster presentations already made (Nicholson 2006, 2007a, 2007b and 2007c) consideration of the broader theoretical implications of the findings, including sociological and technological considerations, is being submitted for publication to an appropriate external journal.

8.2 Broader Implications of the Research

There is good evidence that academic success is related to an active or participative learning style rather than passive learning (Lang 2002). Learning environments which have a tendency to exclude d/Deaf and hard of hearing students (or any other disabled students) will, inevitably, influence the extent and nature of their active participation and are likely, therefore, to have an adverse impact on their academic success. It is crucial, in an age of widening participation, that appropriate measures are taken to ensure an inclusive learning experience for all of our students.



Angelides, P. and Aravi, C. (2007). The development of inclusive practices as a result of the process of integrating deaf/hard of hearing students. European Journal of Special Needs Education 22(1), 63-74.

Gravestock, P. (2006). Developing An Inclusive Curriculum: A Guide for Lecturers. Geography Discipline Network, University of Gloucestershire.

Lang, H. G. (2002). Higher education for deaf students: Research priorities in the New Millenium. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 7(4), 267-80.

Nicholson, D. T. (2007c). Ensuring Success for d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students at MMU: Improving the Learning Environment. Poster presented at the MMU Ensuring Student Success conference on 11th September 2007.

Nicholson, D. T. (2007b). Inclusive curriculum design for d/Deaf and hard of hearing students. Poster presented at the Inclusive Curriculum Design Conference at York University on 7th September 2007.

Nicholson, D. T. (2007a). Inclusive learning environments for d/Deaf and hard of hearing students. Poster presented at the MMU Learning and Teaching Fellows Away Day on 22nd June 2007.

Nicholson, D. T. (2006). Inclusive learning and teaching for d/Deaf and hard of hearing students: Preliminary findings of a survey. Poster presented at the MMU Learning and Teaching Fellows Conference on 23rd June 2006.

RDES (2007). Revised Disability Equality Scheme submitted to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Manchester Metropolitan University. [Online] [Accessed 4th November 2007].

Richardson, J. T., Barnes, L. and Fleming, J. (2004). Approaches to studying and perceptions of academic quality in deaf and hard of hearing students in higher education. Deafness and Education International 6(2), 100-122.

Smith, A. (1997). Supporting the learning of deaf students in Higher Education: A case study at Sheffield Hallam University. Journal of Further and Higher Education 21(3), 325-334.

Woodward, J. (1972). Implications for sociolinguistics research among the deaf. Sign Language Studies 1, 1-7.



The author acknowledges the Faculty of Science and Engineering Learning and Teaching -Sub Committee for funding (£350) a Prize Draw and other minor project-related expenditure; Learning Support (particularly Nicki Ho) for assistance with the questionnaire mailing and general support for the project; and d/Deaf and hard of hearing students who completed the postal questionnaire survey (35) and gave up their time to take part in an interview (10).



1 The term ‘Deaf’, with an upper case ‘D’ was first used by Woodward (1972) and refers to that group of deaf people who use sign language, are at least severely deaf, and regard themselves as belonging to a linguistic and cultural minority. This community of Deaf people generally do not regard themselves as disabled and it is correct, therefore, to use the upper case ‘D’ for Deaf in the same way as it might be used to refer to English people or Scottish people. People who do not use sign language (eg less severely deaf or deafened later in life) generally do not regard themselves as part of this Deaf community and for them, the conventional lower case ‘d’ for deaf is more acceptable. The use of ‘d/Deaf’ includes both groups of people.

2 All student names have been changed for anonymity.


About the Author
photo of Dawn Nicholson

Dawn Nicholson
Senior Learning and Teaching Fellow, Faculty of Science and Engineering

telephone: 0161 247 6232

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