Making Design Reviews Accessible to Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Participants: A Promising Practice in Engineering Education

Date Updated

Design reviews are a common part of engineering education practice. In design reviews, students or student teams present their work to their classmates, instructors, and sometimes a panel of users or external experts for feedback and commentary. This practice gains formative feedback from multiple perspectives on a student’s project to ultimately strengthen both the project and the student’s communication and technical skills as engineers.

However, the semi-structured, dialogue-heavy format that makes design reviews so rich also renders them difficult for students and reviewers who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. Even the best listeners and speech-readers have to expend significant effort to track unpredictable and complex conversations with multiple speakers. Without access to the presentation and dialogue, participants who are deaf or hard-of-hearing have difficulty giving feedback. Furthermore, some people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing prefer to communicate in modalities other than spoken communication, such as in writing, typing, or sign language. In these cases, a hearing audience needs a way to access the insights from presenters and reviewers who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.

At Olin College of Engineering, a course called Investigating Normal engages student teams in designing for people with various disabilities and disability interest/support groups. In order to make the design review accessible to all parties involved they developed the following list of things to consider before and during the design review when an individual who is deaf or hard-of-hearing is a participant.

Before the design review:

  • Ask deaf or hard-of-hearing participants what their access preferences are for this situation. Preferences vary and an individual may want one access modality for one setting and a different modality in another setting. Some people prefer to lip-read and speak only in certain situations; others avoid lip-reading altogether. Some people handle captioner/interpreter selection and scheduling themselves, and others prefer not to handle this coordination.
  • Set up the review space to have good sightlines. Since people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing typically rely on visual input regardless of communication modality, seating in a circle (with presenters on one side of the circle) is preferable to seating in rows, if space permits, so that everyone can see everyone else in the room. Regardless of the seating arrangement, make sure there are seats where participants who are deaf or hard-of can clearly see the presenters, presentation, and (if applicable) captioning/interpreting. Typically this accomplished by reserving seats near the front.
  • Consider other access needs that participants who are deaf or hard-of-hearing may have. For instance, a participant may be both deaf and a wheelchair user. Make sure that arrangements for communication access do not impede other access requirements.
  • If a participant who is deaf or hard-of-hearing requests real-time captioning or American Sign Language (ASL) (or other signed language) interpreting, schedule these services ahead of time, typically at least 2 weeks in advance. At most schools, the budgeting/scheduling for these services will be done through a central disability services office. Note that for events over one hour, you will typically need to hire a team of two ASL interpreters so that they can trade off to avoid fatigue.
  • Provide captioners/interpreters with a summary of the event, including location (including where to park) along with any major topics or uncommon vocabulary you expect will be used. This preparation allows them to better prepare to caption or interpret the event.
  • Ensure that participants who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing and the captioners/interpreters have each others’ contact information ahead of time so they can exchange preferences if they so choose.
  • Set up the review space for the captioning and interpreting services ahead of time. Interpreters need chairs on which to sit, ideally placed near where the presenter(s) will stand. If the presentation/discussion will take place in a seated circle rather than a lecture-style setting, interpreters should be positioned across from the participants who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. Captioned events will need a screen on which to display the captions. Using a second projection screen, a large monitor, or personal computing device are possible options that can be used depending on your classroom setup and the preferences of the participant.

During the design review:

  • At the start of the design review event, remind the participants to speak one at a time, which is generally good communication practice independent of the presence of deaf or hard-of-hearing people. When presenting or discussing the projects under review, moderate the conversation so that everyone speaks one at a time.
  • Provide discourse-free time to process visuals and artifacts. Hearing people can simultaneously look at a slide or artifact and listen to a presenter speak about it, but people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing need uninterrupted time to look at slides, manipulate prototypes being passed around, etc. During this quiet time they do not need to worry about missing information from a speaker. For presenters, this means that when presenting a prototype, a slide, a sketch, it can be helpful to pause and give people a chance, even briefly, to look before continuing with talking.
  • Require presenters to caption videos and transcribe audio components of the presentation. Alternatively, they should provide transcripts and/or speaker notes to the audience.
  • In the event that access services are interrupted (e.g., a remote captionist has connectivity issues, an interpreter steps out to get water during a break in the design review) do not resume the review or conversation until services are resumed. Make it clear that the conversation will not continue until everyone is able to participate.
  • Regardless of whether or not captions are provided, taking notes (especially in a collaborative or publicly viewable location) and making them available afterward can be helpful. For example, a presenter could open a collaborative document for shared classroom notes, and anyone present in the classroom could opt-in to contribute and/or read.

The development and implementation of the above suggestions at Olin College of Engineering is a promising practice in promoting inclusivity in engineering education. The perspectives of reviewers and presenters who are deaf or hard-of-hearing contribute to improvements on the designs being reviewed, regardless of whether those designs specifically address deafness or not.

For additional information on this topic you may wish to consult: How can universal design, disability, and accessibility topics be integrated into the engineering curriculum?, How can you prepare engineering students to work with people with disabilities?, and Why is it important to integrate disability, accessibility, and universal design content into engineering courses?

This promising practice was funded in part by an AccessEngineering minigrant. For additional resources and information on increasing the participation of people with disabilities in engineering academic programs and careers visit AccessEngineering.