It’s Not the Hearing that Improves Life, but the Listening
By. Chris Webb (BSc. Hons. PGCE. Dip.) – Teacher at John Rennie High School and Tracey Green (MA, LSLS cert. AVed) – Itinerant Educational Specialist at MOSD
An Adventure in Assistive Listening at John Rennie High School
This year, with the help of Itinerant Educational Specialist, Tracey Green, from the Montreal Oral School for the Deaf (MOSD), John Rennie High School (JRHS) has undertaken a number of projects to raise awareness of the d/Deaf community and to make the school more accessible for all students.
Through the long-standing tradition of MOSD servicing students with hearing loss who attend their neighbourhood schools in the Lester B. Pearson School Board, Tracey has brought a wealth of information and knowledge about accessibility to the team at JRHS this year. Her willingness to educate on what it means to have hearing loss, and what can be done to accommodate students in the classroom is infectious. This year has been a turning point for JRHS as several initiatives have been implemented which are a start to overcoming the invisible barriers for students with hearing loss. These included upgrades to the theatre space, using captioning and transcription tools for remote learning, normalizing window masks, and raising awareness about hearing loss on social media. It is hoped that JRHS’ journey towards improved access to information will spark change and inspire other schools to work towards more inclusive measures too. True accessibility initiatives fit the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework whereby everyone in the classroom can benefit.
The Montreal Oral School for the Deaf
The MOSD is a private special needs school in the public interest and is the only auditory-verbal school in Quebec. It’s mission is to teach children with hearing loss to listen and to speak. MOSD services include early intervention (0-3 years,) Preschool (3-5 years,) and elementary (5-12 years,) education, tele-intervention services and mainstream schooling support services for students attending their neighborhood school (kindergarten through Grade 11). Itinerant Educational Specialists support the students and school teams across 8 school boards and service centres in Quebec. In recent years, JRHS has had a number of students with varying degrees of hearing loss join their school community.
This collaboration with MOSD has allowed JRHS to further explore what it means to have hearing loss, d/Deaf identity formation, and improve on accessibility in the classroom and throughout the school. The premise of the auditory-verbal approach is that children, with appropriately fitted listening technology can learn to listen and to speak. These listening devices include Hearing Aids (HAs), Cochlear Implants (CIs) and Bone-Anchored Hearing Systems (BAHs).
On any given day at school, students will ask their teachers and/or peers to wear a remote microphone in the classroom to support their access to information. Remote microphones (e.g. FM/DM system, Mini-mic) allow the student increased ease of listening by bringing the teacher’s voice directly to their listening device thereby overriding distance, background noise and reverberation often present in the dynamic classroom environments.
The Louise Chalmers Theatre
JRHS has been renovating the theatre space and knew that audio in this environment was an issue for the students. With that in mind, the project included a plan for improved accessibility. To do so the team realized that they would have answer the following questions:
How can we overcome a 1960’s theatre design to project sound outwards, rather than capture it on the stage?
How can we capture what is happening on the stage?
How can we mix the audio so that the music doesn’t overwhelm the speaking?
How can we deliver the mixed signal (voice and music) to the audience member who requires assistive listening technology?
By working with the Actor’s Studio program, the research and discoveries began with the use of a series of hanging microphones across the stage, along with wired and wireless microphones. The goal in doing this was to get the sound to the mixer, to ensure that the levels were correct. Once achieved, the audio had to get to the user. Chris undertook extensive research regarding sound quality, optimal latency of the audio signal, and compatibility with listening devices (e.g. CIs, HAs, BAHs). It was determined that a WiFi based system would best meet the needs. The Listen Everywhere™ listen technologies allows the user to connect to the audio via their phone, and stream directly to their listening devices, or a pair of headphones. This means that anyone in the theatre who wishes to use assistive listening can access what is being said on the stage with increased ease, enjoy the sound effects, listen to music being performed or played, as well as participate in a presentation. By having the audio sent directly to the listener we can provide a clear audio feed which overcomes a poor acoustic environment for anyone listening, no matter their needs.
Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 only a handful of us were familiar with tele-conferencing software, much less able to navigate our jobs from the comfort of our living rooms. Learning remotely, while by no means a new phenomenon, became the norm. In addition to challenges associated with insufficient bandwidth, and less than ideal microphones (external microphones have been proven to have better outcomes), our students had to learn to juggle the new way of learning and listening to non-live voice. These issues increase exponentially for those with hearing loss. Until recently, not all tele-conferencing platforms were equipped with auto-generated closed captioning. Google Meet has allowed us to leverage some of the best captioning for our students. The accuracy of the captioning in Meet vs other platforms has made it the product of choice for us during our online learning.
In addition, one of the tools that JRHS has been working with this year is Tactiq. Tactiq allows students to receive a transcript of a call held in Google Meet or Zoom (online at the moment). This allows students to go back and re-read sections of a presentation as well as identify key pieces of information throughout the lesson for review later. Tactiq (and other transcription tools such as Otter), allow anyone in the meeting to enhance the use of the closed captioning features of the video call. The implications of this type of technology for everyone including those with hearing loss, deficits in auditory processing and other learning challenges are widespread, most notably the relief on cognitive load and the reduction in concentration (auditory) fatigue. In a broader context, Tactiq could serve as a viable tool for hybrid learning and a supplemental resource during lesson review for studying purposes.
In December the JRHS team supported Sidney Bernard-Dagenais, one of their Grade 9 students, in running an Instagram Takeover of the LBPSB Instagram account. This initiative aimed to raise awareness of the d/Deaf community, and the complexities of life as a student with hearing loss in the mainstream school environment. This idea arose from a discussion following the publishing of the open house video in which she was also featured. Sidney enjoyed sharing how comfortable and happy she feels being a student at JRHS. The video raised awareness of both JRHS and MOSD (where she attended preschool and elementary school) and showcased her superior skills as a public speaker. The latter is something people may not inherently expect of someone belonging to the d/Deaf community.
As part of the Instagram takeover, Sidney took followers through a day in her life at school: the process of picking up her FM/DM system in the morning, how she is supported inside and outside of the classroom by Tracey (e.g. auditory training, self advocacy skills, troubleshooting listening technology) and showing how her Cochlear Implant works. She also took them to her various classes that day and on a trip to the Audiology department at MOSD. This endeavor shared with the greater public the impact of hearing loss on everyday tasks such as the battery of her Cochlear Implant processor dying in the middle of Math class meaning she cant hear- an experience unfamiliar to most.
The above are but a few of the different initiatives that have been undertaken at JRHS this year to foster equal access to information for all. In each situation, it was found to be necessary for some yet beneficial for all – the premise of UDL. However, we would be remiss if we did not highlight the extraordinary devotion of time, patience and effort that those with hearing loss and their families undertake when choosing listening and spoken language, and mainstream schooling. Assistive listening technology enhances the experience and certainly eases some of the burden, but is no means a ‘cure-all’. In the words of Csikszentmihalyi, “It’s not the hearing that improves life, but the listening”. These accessibility initiatives have bolstered the students’ access to information and have allowed for listening to happen, and not merely hearing. When listening begins, so does communication, sharing, learning and growing, which are all essential tenets of education!