Aspire for the Deaf Adult Learner

One Teachers Experiences
Classroom Strategies I
Classroom Strategies II
Curriculum Resources
Technological Devices
Working With Interpreters
Web Resources

ABLE for the Deaf Adult Learner

One Teacher's Experiences

by Veronica Rashleigh

Before I start to give you ideas for working with deaf students in your classroom, I'd like to give you an idea of the history of deaf education and a bit on deaf culture so that you might better understand your student.

The history of deaf education is not a bright and cheery one. Earlier in history deaf people were kept in mental institutions and considered unable to be educated. There were times in recent history that sign language was outlawed in schools and in public. School systems gave diplomas to deaf students more as certificates of attendance rather than being a true measure of academic level. Luckily the educational system has now embraced more of a total communication model and has recognized American Sign Language (ASL) as a distinct language and with that has started to try more of an ESOL approach in Deaf Education.

You will see that there is not a "typical" deaf adult. Each adult has had an almost unique language acquisition and educational experience. The national statistics say that 1 out of every 1000 children are pre-lingually deaf. Three deaf children will be different depending on what "type" of household they are born into. A deaf child born into a deaf family will be surrounded by language from the time their eyes open and can see things clearly. Their first language will be ASL and they will master that language with all its structure and syntax and vocabulary as well as any other hearing pre-school child's grasp of the English language. The two other deaf children born into hearing families will be different dependant on the family's resources and willingness to offer the deaf child language. Some deaf children will actually have no formal language exposure or measurable skills at all until they reach school age. As you can imagine we are not working on an even field. Statistics say that 90% of all deaf children are born to hearing parents that do not know, and will not learn or use any form of sign language. So if the Ohio population is 11,350,000 that would mean 11,350 deaf children and 90% will be in homes without access to language, or over 10, 200 children will suffer from the spiraling effects of deafness.

The type of school experience that your deaf student has had will also have some bearing on their new experience in your Adult Ed classroom. A deaf child from a Deaf School will have a different educational background than a child schooled locally in a deaf classroom and even different than a deaf child from a mainstreamed classroom. The deaf adult will bring along the same type of "baggage" that all our other adult learners have acquired along their educational trip.

The Deaf Adult Class of Toledo Public School's Aspire Department was established in 1985 from a suggestion of Toledo's Deaf Advisory Committee. The Adult Education Director at that time, Mr. Flute Rice and a hearing-impaired classroom teacher, Lori Woodard, set up the class that first year on a grant. The class seemed successful, so the program was incorporated into the regular program budget and has continued ever since.

If your program is considering setting up a program like Toledo's there are a few things to take into consideration. Location, accommodations, resources and staff are just a few of the things that need to be considered.

Our current classroom location is at East Toledo Junior High School in the library. We chose this location because it is the Junior High where the system has its hearing-impaired program. The building is already set up with visual fire alarms and TTY's (deaf telephones) in the building to make access easy for the deaf adult class. The deaf community was already familiar with this location since it is one of the deaf education buildings. Holding the class in the library gives us plenty of space for each adult (tables and chairs as opposed to kid-sized one piece desks) and the wealth of resources available in the library has been a definite benefit in the classroom.

Toledo's option for staffing this classroom was assigning a teacher with sign language skills. If your program does not have access to any special ed teachers or teachers with signing skills, then another option is a regular Adult Ed teacher along with an interpreter. This second option might be easier for some locations but it somewhat hinders the direct communication between teacher and student that is a very important part of adult education.

If trying to set up a special class just for deaf adults is not an option, you could either serve the student in your existing classroom with the use of an interpreter or you could see if there is another facility in your area that has the proper resources to help the deaf learner. Throughout Ohio, there are Community Centers for the Deaf that can offer information and help you find what is needed for the student. All the major cities have centers that are more than willing to help you provide services to deaf students.

Some thought must be put into the books and teaching materials used for a deaf adult in your classroom. The most limiting factor for most deaf adults in an educational setting is their language level. This has a major impact on reading, which is the basic skill that helps people learn. Since ASL will be the "native language" for deaf adults coming into your classroom, the new vocabulary that they will come across in all aspects of their work will be new to them. It won't necessarily be that they don't already know the concept, but they just don't know the English words for it. This is just like ESOL students that come into your classroom, that are well educated in their homeland, but lack skills in verbal and written English.

There is a listing included for several language books that have been suggested for deaf adults. I would highly recommend the language series called "STEP (Structured Tasks for English Practice)". There are 10 workbooks, each covering a part of speech and there are 9 teacher guides to go along with the topics. The books are very visually oriented and include signs wherever possible. For vocabulary building, I have used "Working on Words." (See the Curriculum Guides for further information.)

Teachers must encourage vocabulary building. A good dictionary at about a junior high level is a very good starting point. A sign language dictionary or book is also essential. Many of the synonyms we use in English have only one sign to express them all.

Math is a very concrete concept and has a symbolic language of its own. This is a good area to start your student. Your student can build confidence and see success by starting with math computation problems. Math word or story problems are extremely hard for deaf students, and are a source of frustration. The fact that their choice of operation all depends on full understanding of the question the problem is asking is harder than it would seem to other students.

Math books and reading books can be the same books that are used in the regular Adult Ed classroom. Math computation is very defined and rule oriented so this transfers easily. More abstract concepts like algebra may be a little harder to explain. Many times fractions, percents and decimals will be a stumbling block, but as mentioned earlier, word problems can be very difficult for the deaf student. Any reading books used will work, if you remember the limited vocabulary that the deaf learner may have. There might be countless trips to the dictionary to figure out the meaning of a word that most of us take for granted as a common or simple word.

By far the hardest area for a deaf student to master is the language and writing area. ASL is a very distinct language, and not just visual English. ASL has its own syntax and structure and has classifiers very similar to prefixes and suffixes. How many times have you run across a sentence, reread it and said to yourself -- "This just doesn't sound right!" Much of the knowledge we have about English grammar has come to us over time by overhearing our language spoken properly. This learning by exposure scenario is not available to a deaf person. Asking the typical deaf adult to write the composition portion of the GED® test would be like asking any one of you sitting here to write your GED® composition in Japanese without ever hearing the language. Over the years, I have found the Power Writing system seems to help. Power Writing gives a specific format and structure to follow. The essay portion of the GED® is the largest roadblock to deaf students passing the GED®.

There are a few resources for teacher training. Columbus Speech and Hearing has a department called Comprehensive Program for the Deaf (CPD) that has created ABE units for Deaf adults. These materials were developed from a grant and include a binder with both academic units as well as life skills units. The program also comes with sign and voice videotapes. (See the curriculum guides for further information.) There are also two universities for the Deaf, they are National Technology Institute for the Deaf housed at Rochester Institute of Technology (NY), and the only liberal arts university for the Deaf, Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. Gallaudet has held several weeklong summer seminars for teachers and directors that are interested in Deaf Adult Education. (See curriculum guides.)

I hope that you will not look at the deaf student as a burden; it is true that there is a little extra work when there is a deaf adult in the classroom. But these students have the same hopes and dreams that the other students have, and they have suffered through and worked past barriers that your hearing students have never had to face. Your deaf students will share their sense of accomplishment and gratitude with you, knowing that you have given that extra inch to enable them to achieve their goals.

Used with permission. Veronica Rashleigh can be contacted directly at

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