The Employment and Career Growth of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Individuals

The issue


While there is extensive information on the development and education of deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) children/students from birth through college, there is far less information about their decision-making with regard to career selection, as well as career development, growth, and success in the workplace.

What we know and what we don’t know

For DHH individuals, numerous studies have shown the employment and economic benefits of completing a college degree at both the two- and four-year levels. With higher degrees, employment and economic benefits/status improve significantly.

A study of 20,560 DHH individuals in vocational rehabilitation programs who had secured jobs showed that more hard-of-hearing people (69%) obtained competitive employment as compared to those who were deaf (31%). Deaf people tended to be employed in non-professional occupations (e.g., clerical, lodging, machine operations, metal processing, printing, wood fabrication, welding, transportation, food preparation, stock and freight handlers), while the hard of hearing tended to secure professional employment (e.g., technical, managerial, education, art). These findings suggest that professional jobs may require and expect interaction with hearing people, thus, requiring greater communication skills.

While educated DHH people get jobs and sustain employment, their promotion opportunities and career growth are often limited. For example, one study of federal employees revealed that out of 2,161 DHH people in federal white-collar positions only 4.8% were promoted to the GS-13 level (out of 15), with only one deaf person promoted to a senior executive position. Another study of federal employees showed that while people with disabilities had increased their numbers, they made few other gains. “The disabled faced obstacles in both entry and advancement; they entered federal service at lower levels and were promoted at slower rates than nondisabled employees of the same education, age, experience, sex and minority status.” Furthermore, the probability of promotion fell as length of service and age increased. A current study in process on the DHH college alumni with four-year bachelor degrees from a large, private technical university in the northeast reveals that DHH alumni show significantly less movement into middle and senior management positions during their working years from ages 22 to 59 compared to hearing alumni peers with similar degrees. Furthermore, hearing alumni were 3.2 times more likely to achieve a middle management role compared to DHH alumni with comparable degrees, 5.7 times more likely to be a senior manager, and 7.3 times more likely to become an owner/entrepreneur during their careers.

For deaf people who cannot read or write well enough to communicate effectively, we know far less about their employment and growth opportunities. However, we do know that by age 18, about 50% of the DHH students in school have only achieved reading comprehension at the 4th grade level or below, and 50% only have mathematical skills at approximately 6th grade or below. For those DHH students who enter two-year college degree programs, we know they generally have math and problem solving skills similar to 7th and 8th grade hearing students. Both reading comprehension and mathematical skills are important factors in obtaining employment in a workforce that increasingly requires technical knowledge and skills, as well as graduating with a college degree.

What we do not know are the factors that influence DHH students’ decision-making for employment preparation or career selection. In one study most of the DHH high school students had little awareness of helpful strategies or job accommodations and some had already ruled out career choices. Another study involving hearing and DHH high school students showed that both groups evaluated occupations involving a lot of communication less suitable for DHH people compared to those involving less communication. In fact, some stereotypic evaluations were expressed regarding DHH women’s occupational competence.


DHH students preparing to enter the workforce, with either a high school or college degree, need to understand that they are leaving a structured, supportive educational environment with advocates and entering a work environment where they are primarily responsible for their own future. They must self- navigate and develop within the work culture and environment they have chosen. High schools should provide co-op work experiences and transition services for those DHH students planning to enter the workforce immediately. While college programs generally provide co-op work experiences, job counseling, and job search support, both high school and college programs serving DHH students need to go beyond skill development for entering specific occupations. They need to address long-term career growth strategies, continuing education and skill development, as well as adapting to changing technology needs in the workplace.

Posted on January 12, 2015 by
Ronald R. Kelly
REACH Center for Studies on Career Success
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology
ronald.kelly {at}

Further reading

Albertini, J. A., Kelly, R. R., & Matchett, M. K. (2012). Personal factors that influence deaf college students’ academic success. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 17, 85-101. view details

Blatto-Vallee, G., Kelly, R. R., Gaustad, M. G., Porter, J., & Fonzi, J. (2007). Visual-spatial representation in mathematical problem solving by deaf and hearing students. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 12, 432-448. view details

Kelly, R. R. (2008). Deaf learners and mathematical problem solving. In M. Marschark and P. Hauser (Eds.), Deaf cognition: Foundations and Outcomes (pp. 226-249). New York: Oxford University Press. view details

Punch, R., Creed, P. A., & Hyde, M. B. (2006). Career barriers perceived by hard-of-hearing adolescents: Implications for practice from a mixed-methods study. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 11, 224-237. view details