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Sunday, April 2, 2017

Tips for Including Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Students in Mindfulness, Meditation, and Yoga Classes

photo courtesy Karli Dettman

Are you a non-signing hearing teacher who'd like to be more inclusive of d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals in your classes? Read on for advice on being respectful of Deaf culture, communicating with and without an interpreter, and special considerations for meditation and yoga classes.

This was a collaborative effort from a group of Deaf and hearing teachers and counselors with a commitment to sharing best practices in teaching d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing students.  

I am deeply grateful to the following individuals for sharing their expertise, as well as for their patience and kindness in answering my questions and gently correcting my misperceptions and unskillful phrasing:

  • Karli Dettman, Qualified Counsellor and Yoga Teacher; Director Karli Health Centre;
  • Rebecca Finch, a person-centred counsellor and a member of the NZ Association of Christian Counsellors;
  • Dr. Beth Gibbons, Assistant Dean for Graduate Education at Gallaudet University; 
  • Dr. Cara Miller, Clinical Psychologist; Diversity Educator and Coordinator at Gallaudet University;
  • Holly Miller, Psy.S., NCSP, a school psychologist at the American School for the Deaf; 
  • Tanja Szabo, MA, a yoga instructor and English language instructor at Georgetown University who is proficient in ASL;
  • Melissa Thompson, Auslan and Deaf Studies Student; Volunteer with Karli Health Centre
  • Rebecca Withey, a mindfulness teacher and performing artist in England; and
  • Darcy White, a yoga instructor based in Washington, DC

First, a Note on Terminology

There are two distinct groups of people – ‘Deaf’ with a capital ‘D’ identify as part of a specific cultural group, defined by their use of sign language, and with its own specific cultural customs and etiquette. These people embrace membership of this cultural group and this is recognized in writing by the use of a capital letter: ‘Deaf’. 

Those who have a hearing loss but do not use the signed language for their country and do not identify as belonging to a specific cultural group, with its shared experience and cultural knowledge, are referred to as deaf (with a small 'd') or hard-of-hearing, depending on their personal preference. Terms such as hearing impairment are not used out of cultural respect. 

In this article, the term ‘d/Deaf’ refers to non-hearing individuals who may or may not identify as capital-D Deaf. 

Social Etiquette and Communication Strategies

Working with the Deaf community requires an understanding of the signed language of your country and knowledge of Deaf culture. Like any language and culture, this takes time to understand and be welcomed into. 

For hearing teachers who want to include the Deaf community, use of a qualified interpreter is the best option. These professionals are able to bridge both the linguistic and cultural divide. (There is more information about working with an interpreter in the next section of this article.)

If you don't have an interpreter present, the following are some general principles about Deaf cultural etiquette or behaviors with which you should be familiar:
  • People who are not Deaf are referred to as "hearing."
  • A Deaf person’s attention is gained by visual or tactile means, eg: flicking the light switch, stamping on the floor or table, tapping the upper arm.
  • Nodding may occur throughout a conversation as a way of acknowledging that the person understands what is being said. It does not necessarily mean that they agree with or affirm what you are saying.  
    • In fact, for many Deaf people, “Deaf nod” means just nodding to pretend you understand a hearing person, and “hearing nod” is where a hearing person nods indicating they understand a signing person when they really don’t! 
  • ‘Visual noise’ is distracting, so  consider what is behind you:  Does your clothing contrast with the wall?  Is there a blinking red light from your computer?  Is your jewelry flashing from the sun coming through the window?
  • Pointing at someone is not regarded as rude. It is used in signed language as a way of referring to people or objects.
  • It is fine to walk through two people signing. Do this quickly and without making eye contact with those signing (to do so would indicate you want to interrupt or join the conversation).

The information that follows is useful for situations where there is no interpreter or with deaf people who do not use sign language or Deaf cultural etiquette.

  • Eye contact is very important when engaging in a conversation with a deaf person. 
  • When teaching a class, be conscious of your body language and gestures, as well as where you are focusing your gaze.  These can either be useful signals or confusing distractions.
  • Students who use hearing aids will benefit more if you speak clearly as opposed to loudly--the sound is likely being amplified but distorted.  For the same reason, it's helpful to avoid speaking at the same time as playing music.
  • Lighting is also very important – whether it be to see your mouth patterns (for lip readers), or facial expressions, or to copy your demonstrations of yoga poses. (Of course, you may wish to balance this with dimmed lighting to promote relaxation.)
  • It’s also very helpful when the instructor gives an outline of how the session will go. Having a sense of how events will transpire can help the d/Deaf student anticipate next moves, along with using tools to indicate a clear transition from one thing to the next
    • i.e a slap on the floor to indicate the next pose; having students sit up from one pose and assume a listening posture for next instructions; walking the class through a yoga pose or demonstrating it first before having the class try it, etc.
  • If you’re planning to show a video, keep in mind that the automatic captioning on YouTube is often inaccurate. It’s helpful to select videos with accurate captioning, or to provide a transcript.
  • Some deaf students may not be able to read as fluently as their hearing classmates. 
    • Mindfulness teachers often assign a lot of poetry or prose passages for homework, which can be challenging for some students.  Are there alternative ways to convey the same message?

Working Effectively with an Interpreter
  • Obviously, interpreters are professionals who need to be paid and will contribute to the cost of running a class. Different countries will have different eligibility criteria for when government funding will be provided for interpreting. 
    • In Australia for example, the government funds interpreting for medical appointments and education, as well as for Deaf employees for events related to their work. 
    • In Australia, there is a process for qualification and registration with the professional body, NAATI (National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters). This would be a good place to approach when looking for an interpreter.
  • While it may feel ‘rude’ or as if you are ignoring the interpreter, it's important to engage with the Deaf person. They should be the focus of your gaze and at whom you direct communication. 
  • When using interpreters for a class or lecture, 
    • Make sure that the room is set up so that students have a clear line of sight to both the teacher and interpreter. 
    • Speak at a normal, steady pace. However, don’t talk so quickly that the interpreter has trouble keeping up, especially during question-and-answer times or class discussion. 
    • It's useful to check in advance how much experience the interpreter has with the topics you'll be covering.  
      • The interpreter may be quite unfamiliar with your course content.  On the other hand, the interpreter may be a devoted yoga practitioner, or may have taken an MBSR class personally, or may have interpreted for several other meditation classes.  

A Bit of Background on Sign Language

ASL, Auslan, BSL, and NZSL are manual and visual languages which have a ‘topic object’ structure. The topic is always given first, and further, more specific information then follows.

Much information is conveyed by a visual ‘description’ and different signers will do this in different ways. This is particularly true when describing concepts which do not yet have lexicalized signs.

There is not word-for-sign equivalence with English, and there is no single 'right' translation of a phrase or concept. 'Mindfulness,' 'yoga,' 'gratitude,' 'oneness,' 'meditate' and many other terms could be signed in different ways in different contexts. 

You may want to clarify before the class how a potentially ambiguous or confusing term will be interpreted. However, don’t be overly concerned if different interpreters seem to be using different signs for the same concepts, or for the same word in a different context. 

In American Sign Language (ASL), common signs for ‘mindfulness’ include:
  • MIND-f-u-l (the sign for mind, with a lexicalized suffix),
  • AWARE, 
  • OM; and
  • the index finger of the dominant hand touched to the forehead and then touched to the index finger of the other hand, similar to the sign for "goal" or "mission" to indicate the nature of intentionality.

‘Gratitude’ could be signed as:
There is no official sign for ‘yoga’ and many teachers choose to fingerspell it.  Some teachers have signed it as if meditating (letters "F's" with palms up and at one’s side), but  that doesn't represent all that yoga is--for some, it might just be meditating, for others, it's about the asanas (poses), or the actual practice of mind-body-spirit coming together, or a mix of these. 

In Australian Sign Language (Auslan), the word “mindfulness” would be signed a number of different ways, depending on the context. This would be done by using known lexicalized signs (to establish the ‘topic’) and then provide further information to make it clear what you are talking about.
  • The sign AWARE may be used, but the location changed. Rather than appearing as if the eyes are opening in awareness, it is signed next to the temples, to indicate it is a mental ‘awareness’ – an awareness located in the mind. 
  • OBSERVE may be signed with the index and middle fingers of both hands acting as a pair of eyes looking at things. OBSERVE is a directional verb in Auslan, and you would change the orientation and location of your hands to demonstrate looking at your thoughts (‘eyes’ pointing to the mind/head and within yourself).
  • It may also be signed in a way similar to ‘FALL IN LOVE’ or ‘IMMERSION’, hand movements showing one hand move down inside the other. Visually this demonstrates falling or focusing within yourself. The expressions used with this (or any) sign are pivotal in conveying meaning. In this case the eyes would be closed, the head would tip down and the person would exhale – emphasizing the falling within yourself. 

In British Sign Language, there's no fixed sign for 'mindfulness.'

MIND-FOCUS or MIND BODY CONNECTION could be used, fingerspelling beforehand and explaining that it means to keep the mind's focus on one thing at a time.

The concept of being 'present' could be signed as being HERE and NOW and not lost in thoughts.

It's often easier to sign the opposite of mindfulness such as DREAMING or LOST IN THE MIND to reinforce the meaning.

Students may also have their own sign for 'mindfulness.'

In New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL), a typical sign for ‘mindfulness’ is: thumb on index finger on both hands, held hands extended. 

Meditation and Formal Mindfulness Practice
  • As with hearing students, it’s important to consider the background of the individuals you teach. If you’re working with young children, new signers, or individuals with limited language skills, you will want to be as concrete as possible. It’s helpful to start with more experiential activities like mindful eating before moving on to more abstract concepts.
  • It can be more tiring for a student who is watching you and/or the interpreter than for students who are listening.  It's helpful to have plenty of pauses for 'eye rests'.
  • Your student(s) and interpreter(s) will probably need to figure out for themselves how to feel comfortable with the intimacy of going through certain types of practices together.  
    • For example, one student tried closing her eyes for the body scan and having the interpreter gently tap where she should focus her attention, but this was startling when she wasn't expecting a tap and awkward when scanning certain areas of the body.  It worked better to have a 'safe place' to rest her focus when the interpreter wasn't signing. 
  • There are several non-auditory ways to signal the beginning and ending of a meditation session.
    • Flashing the overhead light is a commonly-used signal to transition between activities. 
      • If you have a light that can be set to dim gradually, that would be a visual way of mimicking the gradual sound of a bell. 
      • An alternative visual strategy is for the teacher or interpreter to use a visual cue, such as waving a feather, to indicate the end of a meditation period.
      • A gentle tap might be appropriate at the end of a meditation period, depending on the wishes of your student(s).
    • If working with one or two individuals, for example in a therapy setting, a 'singing bowl' can be used and the d/Deaf individual(s) could put their hands on the bowl to feel the vibrations. 
    • You might also want to consider one of the sensory rituals used in many contemplative and spiritual practices, such as:
      • lighting a candle;
      • pouring water; or
      • burning sage or incense. 

Mindful Movement and Yoga Postures 

photo courtesy Karli Dettman

  • Remember to use visual or tactile cues whenever possible: for example, show pictures of the poses, flash the lights when it's time to switch to a new pose, etc. 
  • An initial training with hand gestures/body language would useful if you don't sign and there's no interpreter available. You can build a lexicon of signals that the student(s) can recognize in future classes. 
  • If there is an interpreter, it would be helpful to go over a diagram or instructions ahead of time.
  • The instruction-experience-instruction-experience format works well when it comes to movement teaching, rather than talking through it, so the student has a chance to try the movements rather than needing to stare at the interpreter throughout.
  • Yoga instructors with Deaf students will often tap or hit  their hand once or twice on the floorboards of the yoga studio as a cue to switch up or move to the next stage of a pose. 
  • In poses where the students are turned away from you, d/Deaf individuals will use their peripheral vision to follow what their classmates are doing, but it’s helpful if the instructor or interpreter can move to be within the students' range of vision. 
  • Some yoga instructors pose students on their mats in a circle surrounding the instructor, with the instructor physically (gently) tapping a student on the shoulder to indicate the end of a session, with that student then tapping the student next to them and so on and so forth. 
    • Please note: It may be appropriate to use gentle touch with certain d/Deaf students, but be cautious in this and check with the individual about his/her preferences, as you would with hearing students. 

Useful Resources


We hope that the above resources and suggestions help you to work effectively with d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Please keep in mind that, like hearing students, different individuals may have very different needs, depending on their age and circumstances, as well as the type of classes you teach.

Deaf children in a mainstream setting often feel isolated from their teacher and peers. In this context, teachers should make a special effort to interact with the d/Deaf children, and to encourage their classmates to interact with them. On the other hand, a d/Deaf adult might not want to be singled out and may already have effective strategies for following the class.

Use the same judgment as with any other student who might be different from you or who might not have the same abilities as you: try to understand what their world is like and make accommodations to support them if they want that kind of support.

Be respectful of the person you’re engaging with. Ask them what strategies they would like to use. This is probably the most important piece of advice we could give!