According to a 2019 report by the National Deaf Center, only 1.3% of enrolled college students are Deaf. The same report shows that more Deaf students took online courses than their non-Deaf (hearing) peers. Higher education is full of barriers for Deaf and hard-of-hearing PhD students, and online learning eliminates many of these barriers. But not all Deaf students can enroll in online programs — and some don’t want to.
If you’re a Deaf or hard-of-hearing PhD student, you’re likely navigating academic environments that weren’t built for you, causing inequities that can hold you back. These barriers can feel insurmountable if you’re unable to receive appropriate accommodations or lack access to empathetic, culturally competent staff and instructors.
Deaf and hard-of-hearing PhD students benefit from increased access to resources and solutions to common challenges they experience. This guide examines common fields for PhD students while exploring individual challenges Deaf and hard-of-hearing students might face in each particular field. Keep reading to find resources and solutions to educational challenges you’re currently experiencing — or may in the future.
The humanities focus on the human condition — the unique traits that make up the human species — and includes fields such as history, philosophy, English, and the arts, including language and visual arts, music, cinema, theater, opera, and dance. The emphasis in these courses on oral communication can present hurdles to Deaf and hard-of-hearing students, who are enabled by alternative modes of learning and communication like assistive technology.
Challenge 1: Emphasis on Oral Communication
Scenario: In higher education, the humanities currently emphasize oral communication. Teachers often present oral presentations and engage students in active learning. In active learning classrooms, students engage in various discussions, including seminars. Students also commonly present oral presentations to in their humanities classrooms.
Emphasizing oral communication in discussions, seminars, and oral presentations creates barriers to effective participation for many Deaf and hard-of-hearing PhD students. Many of these students struggle to fully comprehend spoken content and can miss out on nuances in discussion. Presenting their research orally can also pose significant challenges, as many Deaf students are nonspeaking and communicate via sign language or assistive technology.
Solutions for Deaf humanities students who want to overcome the challenge of oral communication include collaborating with disability services to find help advocating for accommodations, educating faculty and peers about Deaf culture and your unique needs, requesting written communication, and strengthening your written communication skills.
You can also join disability networks or form a network of your own and participate in online forums and discussions related to your field. Joining disability networks will allow you to find fellow Deaf humanities students with whom to find community: sharing ideas, tips, and socializing and studying together.
Higher education institutions can implement comprehensive accommodations and embrace and normalize alternative communication methods. Not everyone speaks, and that’s okay. Institutions can prioritize accessibility for Deaf PhD students by offering sign language interpreters, visual aids for lectures, and captioning services for videos.
Emphasizing written communication can also eliminate disabling barriers, as can encouraging inclusive presentation formats — with visual aids such as real-time captions — and promoting diverse assessment methods. Not everyone learns the same way, and that’s okay, too.
Sensitivity training for faculty, staff, and students can also foster inclusivity and belonging. In addition, institutions can implement policies that support accommodations and universal design for learning, which can ensure equitable educational experiences for Deaf and hard-of-hearing PhD students. A shift towards inclusive communications practices is essential — this includes accessible presentations (with captions), alternative assessment methods, and written discussions, such as the use of an online discussion board.
Challenge 2: Limited Availability of Transcripts for Academic Materials
Scenario: Deaf students commonly face barriers when it comes to accessing academic materials such as recorded interviews, documentaries, and oral histories. Lectures can also be inaccessible for Deaf students, as can videos without captions.
In other words, colleges and universities disable Deaf and hard-of-hearing students when these institutions fail to provide access to transcripts for academic materials. Without transcripts, educational content becomes inaccessible for these students, disrupting their ability to complete coursework and carry out research projects.
As a Deaf or hard-of-hearing PhD humanities student, you can overcome limited availability of transcripts for academic materials by talking to instructors at the beginning of the semester about your communication needs.
Request transcripts for any audio or video content your instructor plans to use for the class. Additionally, you can contact disability services to have them advocate on your behalf. Disability services coordinates accommodations across campus, working with instructors and staff to make sure that instructors provide accommodations such as transcripts for course materials. You can also join online communities and collaborate with PhD colleagues who understand and accept your communication style.
To allow Deaf PhD students in the humanities to fully engage with their academic resources, it is imperative that institutions provide accurate transcripts for disabled students. Access to audiovisual educational content is vital to creating inclusive learning environments. Not only can institutions advocate for accessibility standards that enable Deaf and hard-of-hearing students, but creators of educational content can also produce transcripts alongside audiovisual learning materials.
A broad field, the health sciences consist of a wide range of subjects that contribute to the understanding and improvement of human health. These fields study human health and medical care and include fields such as nutrition, nursing, public health, medical research, and health informatics. Deaf PhD students studying health sciences may struggle with lab and fieldwork challenges, access to information, communication, and social isolation.
Challenge 1: Clinical Communication & Patient Interaction
Scenario: Deaf and hard-of-hearing health science PhD students may struggle with clinical communication, which involves patient interaction. In clinical settings, Deaf PhD students can experience mistreatment from patients and colleagues, which can result in isolation and mental health conditions. Deaf PhD students may face challenges in practical exams that evaluate students on verbal communication skills. Limited access to educational materials and tools can also hinder their academic progress.
Learning self-advocacy skills is one of the best things you can do for yourself as a Deaf or hard-of-hearing PhD student. With honed self-advocacy skills, you can effectively communicate your needs and desires to professors, colleagues, and healthcare professionals.
Request reasonable accommodations, which can include access to a variety of communication tools such as assistive technology and sign language interpreters. You can also request written communication and ask your school to implement visual communication aids like electronic devices and whiteboards, which can improve communication. Leverage technology, too. There are a range of assistive apps out there such as video conferencing and speech-to-text apps to help facilitate communication.
Higher education institutions have a role to play as well — from providing sensitivity training and spreading awareness about Deaf culture to proactively engaging with Deaf advocacy groups and organizations to promote awareness of the needs of Deaf people. Both colleges and healthcare institutions can also help Deaf people by implementing anti-bullying policies that protect Deaf and hard-of-hearing PhD students.
Challenge 2: Use of Auditory Diagnostic Tools
Scenario: Deaf and hard-of-hearing PhD students may struggle to use auditory diagnostic tools such as stethoscopes and audiometers, which rely on auditory feedback and are typically designed for professionals with typical hearing.
For example, speech audiometry, the act of assessing a person’s ability to hear and understand spoken words, can be a challenge for Deaf PhD students of life sciences, as Deaf professionals may be unable to accurately evaluate speech perception — especially those who rely solely on auditory cues.
Request a visual stethoscope that provides visual representations of sound. Alternatively, you can request technology that converts sounds into vibrations that you can feel. Similarly, you can incorporate visual and tactile feedback into audiometric testing — that way you rely on visual cues or vibrations to effectively conduct and interpret tests. Visual and tactile feedback can also serve as an alternative communication method for speech-language pathology tools.
However, higher education and healthcare institutions have the responsibility to create inclusive and supportive environments for Deaf health professionals by providing accommodations and implementing policies that remove barriers and promote equity for people with hearing challenges. Efforts to enhance accessibility for Deaf professionals also help patients with hearing impairments.
Natural sciences are fields that cover the physical world. Through disciplines such as biology, chemistry, physics, and astronomy, students explore the physical world using analysis, experimentation, and systematic observation. Natural science students aim to comprehend natural phenomena and to contribute to society’s growing knowledge of the natural world, driving technological advancements. Deaf or hard-of-hearing natural science students tend to face unique challenges both during fieldwork and in the laboratory.
Challenge 1: Fieldwork Difficulties
Scenario: When it comes to the natural sciences, fieldwork is an essential part of many PhD students’ research. Unfortunately, fieldwork relies on verbal communication and so poses obstacles that hinder real-time interaction and collaboration for Deaf students. These obstacles include difficulty hearing environmental cues and miscommunicating with field guides, colleagues, and locals. Deaf students can also lack access to emergency information that is only shared via oral announcements.
Fieldwork solutions for Deaf PhD students involve proactive planning, effective communication, and appropriate accommodations. Whether students need sign language interpreters, written communication, or visual aids, by sharing your particular needs in advance — including potential accommodations — you can eliminate certain disabling barriers that limit your full participation.
Institutions have a role to play as well. They can provide training to fieldwork colleagues about Deaf culture, share various communication strategies, and discuss the importance of creating inclusive environments for all students.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, colleges and universities have the legal responsibility to provide appropriate accommodations to all disabled students.
Another solution is the use of real-time communication tools with caption services such as video conferencing and messaging apps, which can enable Deaf students and their peers to communicate seamlessly. Keep in mind that, when possible, students and instructors should use visual aids, diagrams, and written communication when sharing information.
Challenge 2: Laboratory Communication
Scenario: Deaf and hard-of-hearing PhD students may experience difficulties in participating in lab discussions and may become unsafe if a lab requires auditory cues. Specific challenges Deaf PhD students experience in labs relate to collaboration, communication, and participation — activities that are intertwined. In labs, Deaf PhD students experience challenges related to seminar participation, limited access to captioning services and sign language interpreters, and exclusion from formal and informal discussions.
Some potential solutions to address lab work difficulties for Deaf PhD students involve providing detailed written instructions for lab procedures and safety training materials. Reducing reliance on verbal communication this way allows Deaf and hard-of-hearing PhD students to access information visually. Similarly, visual aids such as charts and diagrams can help convey information and enhance understanding, and not just for Deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Many disabled and neurodivergent students benefit from visual aids.
Another solution is to implement digital communication methods and platforms to support communication and collaboration among lab members. While instant messaging and video conferencing can be helpful, it’s also helpful to permit asynchronous communication methods. All Deaf and hard-of-hearing students have a right to access to captioning services and assistive devices, such as those with vibrating or visual alerts that notify students of lab events and emergencies.
As previously mentioned, visual safety alerts can also help students who are Deaf or hard of hearing. These include visual alarms and flashing lights, which are vital for maintaining safe laboratory environments.
The social sciences involve a range of disciplines that study society and human behavior. These fields include anthropology, economics, geography, psychology, sociology, and political science. Access to social sciences for Deaf and hard-of-hearing students is often impeded by various factors that relate to communication, cultural differences, and the academic environment. Disability is caused, in part, by the environments people live and learn in, as demonstrated by the social model of disability.
Challenge 1: Inclusive Access to Academic Conferences
Scenario: Conferences commonly lack accessible facilities and adequate accommodations, disrupting participation such as networking opportunities and hearing and comprehending vital information. Without access to real-time spoken content, Deaf PhD students may miss important information at a conference they’ve spent time and money to attend.
In addition to inaccessible conference materials, Deaf PhD students may miss out on opportunities due to lack of sign language interpreters, the absence of assistive listening devices, limited captioning services, and general lack of awareness of Deaf culture, including Deaf communication needs.
To improve accessibility for Deaf PhD students at academic conferences, conference organizers can incorporate accessibility features into the planning process. This includes hiring sign language interpreters, providing assistive listening devices, implementing captioning services, and teaching conference staff and participants about Deaf culture and different communication needs.
Organizers also benefit from collaborating with Deaf advocacy organizations and seeking information from the source: Deaf people, who can use their lived experience to contribute to more inclusive conference experiences for Deaf and hard-of-hearing attendees.
And since conferences can be more expensive for Deaf participants due to needs that may include interpreters and assistive technology, conference organizers can also provide discounts for Deaf people and those with disabilities. Overall, conference organizers should do everything possible to ensure venue accessibility for all. This is why universal design is important.
As a Deaf or hard-of-hearing conference participant, you can improve your experience by planning early. Planning early allows you to utilize all the available services you need and advocate for accommodations and other needs. Carefully and strategically planning your schedule will help you ensure there are accommodations for you. You can also join Deaf and disability networks related to the conference or within your field to find additional support, resources, and community.
Challenge 2: Verbal Interviews & Qualitative Research
Scenario: Due to the reliance on spoken communication in verbal interviews and qualitative research, Deaf PhD students may encounter various challenges when engaging in these methodologies. Limited access to verbal communication and qualified interpreters causes many of these issues. Deaf and non-Deaf people may struggle to understand each other. These miscommunications can lead to misinterpretations and difficulty building rapport with faculty and fellow colleagues.
Self-advocacy is a valuable tool when you’re Deaf or hard of hearing. Because your needs may not be obvious to most people, and also because accommodations may be difficult to come by, you may need to advocate for the adoption of accessible research methods as well as accessible interview transcripts and sign language interpreters — depending on your school.
You can also seek support and mentorship from professors, advisors, and the broader academic and disability communities. Having people in your corner can help you navigate the challenges of PhD education as a student with hearing challenges.
Higher education institutions can help to enable Deaf and hard-of-hearing students by advocating for accessibility in academic and research settings. This means collaborating with disability services and sign language interpreters and employing inclusive research methodologies (ideally based on universal design).
Signs of a Deaf-Friendly PhD Program
A Deaf-friendly PhD program creates and maintains inclusive environments where all students can thrive, which includes implementing universal design. In this section, you’ll find key signs you should consider when evaluating a PhD program to ensure the program can meet your unique needs, fostering an inclusive, supportive academic experience.
Look for institutions with sign language interpreters who can translate during academic activities, meetings, and other events. Also find institutions that have lecture halls equipped with captioning services to ensure you can access spoken content during lectures, presentations, and discussions. And seemingly small things like visual fire alarms make a big difference in safety for Deaf and hard-of-hearing students.
Collaboration with External Organizations
Try to find out if the PhD programs that interest you have any partnerships with Deaf advocacy groups, technology providers, or mentorship programs to improve or enhance accessibility. When campuses foster connections with external organizations, they can stay up to date with best practices and create a comprehensive network that empowers Deaf PhD students.
Disability Resource Center
A good disability resource center is well-staffed and offers tailored support. They should offer sign language interpreters, assistive technology, captioning services, and do what they can to ensure content is accessible for students who are Deaf or hard of hearing. Accommodations generally remove barriers that disable students during their educational journeys.
Inclusive Campus Environment
Look for campuses that offer sign language interpreters, captioned services, and other technology that ensure accessible communication. In inclusive environments for Deaf and hard-of-hearing PhD students, faculty and staff ensure that all accommodations are integrated into the program, promoting equal participation.
Scholarships for Deaf & HoH PhD Students
Scholarships are a great way to offset the costs of PhD education while adding credentials to your CV. The following list provides scholarship opportunities tailored toward empowering Deaf and hard-of-hearing students, ensuring the financial support necessary to thrive in graduate school.
Named after the first woman graduate of Gallaudet University to earn a PhD, this annual award is given to alumna of the Delta Epsilon Sorority.
This scholarship grants up to three annual awards worth $5,000 each to full-time graduate students with (pre-lingual bilateral) hearing loss who primarily speak via listening and spoken language. Applicants must be working towards a master’s or doctoral degree in public policy or public administration at full-time accredited mainstream law schools or graduate schools.
Google awards $10,000 to U.S. students with disabilities to help them reach their academic goals in computer science, computer engineering, or a closely related technical field.
This scholarship is awarded to applicants who are recipients of Cochlear Nucleus, Baha, or Osia implants. Applicants must hold a 3.0 GPA to apply for and maintain the scholarship.
Winners of this scholarship will work with the National Association of the Deaf lawyers and participate in advocacy efforts to protect the civil human and linguistic rights of the American Deaf community.