Accessibility for Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH)

Abraham Glasser


Many times conversation about accessibility focus on issues related to vision or mobility. It’s important that engineers also consider whether their designs are accessible to individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.  As video content online has exploded, much of it is not captioned and therefore inaccessible. This is particularly important as new technologies are developed and proliferated like voice control and virtual reality. Many of the changes that could make technology accessible to individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing could also benefit other groups including older adults, non-native speakers of English, and those with learning disabilities.

Deaf Accessibility and Technology

There are many ways that deaf people benefit from technology. Text telephones (TTY) were originally developed in the 1960’s to help deaf individuals access telephones. In 1964, at the World’s Fair AT&T introduced a videophone, which was very exciting to the deaf community as video would allow them to communicate in American Sign Language (ASL). Nowadays, deaf individuals make heavy use of mainstream technologies such as texting and videocalls.

As video content has proliferated online, much of it is not captioned.  Without captioning, videos are not accessible to deaf and hard of hearing individuals. Captioning videos also benefits others. There’s research that shows that non-native speakers of English benefit from captions as do individuals who are in a loud environment and cannot hear a video and individuals who are in a quiet environment and cannot listen with sound. Early automatic captioning software was very inaccurate. It was not unusual to find that YouTube’s automatic captions for a video were incomprehensible or laughable. Automatic speech recognition has improved; both Google Translate ( and Microsoft Translator ( produce decent captions.

There are other technologies and consideration for deaf individuals:

  • Voice control. Voice control is a proliferating and incorporated into a variety of technologies including smartphones, smart home devices, and more. Voice control, which uses automatic speech recognition, has improved over time and has become accurate, even for individuals with foreign accents. Generally, however, voice control is not accessible for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing regardless of whether or not they regularly use their voice.  It can also be inaccessible to individuals with speech impairments. Technology that utilizes voice-control should have other methods of input such as typing or a touchscreen to ensure access.
  • Virtual reality/augmented reality/mixed reality/extended reality. The realm of virtual reality and related technologies presents both accessibility possibilities and barriers to deaf and hard of hearing users. Lots of virtual reality (VR) content is not accessible for deaf and hard of hearing users due to an emphasis on auditory cues to help navigate or understand the visual content. Even using VR as a deaf individual takes that person away from their real-world environment, making them unable to see or hear what is happening in the real world including interpreters, flashing lights, and more. And yet, consider applications for VR for captioning or sign language interpretation.  In a classroom setting, for example, a deaf individual must look back and forth between an instructor; visual materials including slides, notes, or handouts; and captions or an interpreter. Mixed reality could be used to bring all of these areas of interest into one place. In environments where individuals are taking turns speaking, it can be challenging to follow the conversation. Mixed reality can be used to provide captioning with visual cues to indicate which person is speaking.
  • Deaf Space. The built environment presents unique barriers to individuals who are deaf. “DeafSpace” refers to ways that deaf individuals have designed their surroundings to better fit their needs with regards using vision and touch as a means of spatial awareness and orientation. This could include arranging seating in a way that everyone in a group can see one another or adjusting lighting to minimize eye strain. DeafSpace guidelines, developed at Gallaudet University in conjunction with architect Hansel Bauman, address design elements across five categories, namely, space and proximity, sensory reach, mobility and proximity, light and color, and acoustics.
  • Artificial Intelligence. As artificial intelligence (AI)-based technologies are deployed, it’s critical that ethics are considered both with regard to whether mainstream technologies, like speech recognition, are usable by deaf individuals and ethical issues specific to accessible technologies that utilize AI. Just like there is a need to use diverse datasets when training a machine learning model, for example, using the voices of women and non-native speakers when training voice recognition tools, it’s important to include deaf and hard of hearing individuals in training sets. There is concern that relying on AI-based technology for captions instead of providing human-generated captions or interpreting could mean that deaf individuals get less accurate information.


Discussion Questions

  • After learning about accessibility for deaf and hard of hearing individuals, what did you learn?  What surprised you?
  • What ways could thinking about accessibility and deaf audiences benefit other audiences? Beyond captions, who benefits from visual output in a variety of settings?

Project Ideas

  • Caption a video that is used on campus whether in a course or in another setting.
  • Revisit a project you’ve designed in another class and consider whether it is accessible to individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. What could you do to increase its accessibility?