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Voices unheard : the academic and social experiences of university students who are hard of hearing Warick, Ruth Patricia

Abstract

The nature of the university experiences of students who are hard of hearing and the impact of students' hearing losses on their experiences were the foci of the present research. To date, there have been few studies capturing the voices of students who are hard of hearing. Descriptive categories from Tinto's retention model (1987) provided a theoretical framework for the study, along with the use of the agency-structure nexus (Andres, Andruske & Hawkey, 1996), which focuses on the dynamics between an agent and the environment. Research questions were formulated about students' academic, social, transition, and disability service experiences in university, as well as their identity construction. This study also considered the impact of students' hearing losses on their university experiences, the extent to which students' experiences compared to other students, and the relevancy of Tinto's retention model in capturing their disability dimensions. An interpretive research methodology was adopted because it emphasizes the importance of individuals' experiences as perceived by the participants themselves (Marshall & Rossman, 1999; Smith, 1989). Fourteen university students from three urban universities shared their experiences in interviews, and 11 of them maintained a journal for a three-week period. Interviews were conducted twice with each student. A key finding from the study is that students who are hard of hearing are similar to other students in many respects: social patterns, discipline-related differences, and transition experiences. Nonetheless, they have different experiences because they do not always hear. They make academic choices based on having hearing losses such as class choice, seating position in a classroom, and courseload. They are often "visitors" to the classroom because of participation barriers. The visitor analogy also applies in social situations where participation is frequently challenged by the environment and the dynamics of social engagement. Disability-related accommodations helped many of the students to function better in academic and social situations, but did not eliminate all of their disadvantages. The identity construction of students was complex. Students strove to be part of the hearing world and, therefore, to function like other students; at the same time, they encountered differences because of their hearing losses. Hearing loss was found to constitute elements of habitus, defined by Bourdieu (1977) as a way of being, because of its pervasive impact, and, at the same time, it was not the only force in students' lives. Because of their identity construction, students who are hard of hearing are predisposed to "fit" into the norms and expectations of universities, and, at the same time, institutions are disposed to have students adapt in this manner. Yet, this study also showed that there was capacity for change when crisis situations arose. These findings supported the adoption of the agency-structure nexus in the analysis of students' university experiences, using the descriptive categories from Tinto's retention model to explore these experiences. As well, findings lend support to adding disability-related components to Tinto's model. Recommendations for practice arising from this study called for a greater emphasis on the classroom participation of students who are hard of hearing, increased disability training for instructors, more support for disability service offices, new hearing technology, better classroom acoustics, and mentoring programs.

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