Diversity in Deaf Education

The issue


Anyone who knows or has worked with more than one or two deaf or hard-of-hearing (DHH) learners will be aware of the considerable diversity among them. While it may not be obvious to the parents or teachers of a (single) deaf child, there are large individual differences among DHH learners that are likely to affect formal and informal learning—differences considerably larger than those among hearing children. Deaf education thus remains extremely challenging for both teachers and students, regardless of the setting and the age of the learner.

What we know and what we don’t know

Deaf learners are more diverse than their hearing peers both in terms of what they bring to the classroom and what they take away from it. Many people involved in the raising and educating deaf children continue to look for the “one true path” (e.g., cochlear implants, bilingual education, special schools or mainstream classrooms) to reducing the chronic underachievement among deaf learners. Judging from the results thus far and recent research that has examined or controlled for more than one or two variables at a time, such efforts appear wasteful at best and potentially harmful at worst.

Beyond individual differences relating to the degree and frequencies of their hearing losses (the frequencies of speech or not?), variability in the early environments of DHH children—particularly with regard to communication and social interaction—start them out being more diverse than hearing children essentially from birth. Those differences generally become larger rather than smaller with age, because learning, language, and experience all influence and build on each other. By the time they enter school, DHH students thus will vary more than hearing peers in their language and cognitive abilities, their knowledge of the world and classroom content, and their approaches to learning in formal and informal settings.

On the positive side, research has shown that when taught by skilled teachers of the deaf, DHH students learn just as much as hearing classmates given their own starting points (frequently behind those of hearing peers), presumably because those teachers are aware of what deaf students know and how they learn best. If teachers are unaware of such differences, they may not be able to utilize the strengths and accommodate the needs of their DHH students. DHH students thus may come into the mainstream classroom knowing less about the material than their hearing classmates and leave the classroom even farther behind.

We know that early intervention services provided by trained staff can provide DHH children and families with valuable information, strategies, and skills as indicated by their successes during the early school years.  But we do not know about the long-term impact of early intervention on language, social, and academic outcomes. Similarly, early access to sign language (e.g., via deaf parents) and/or spoken language (e.g. via cochlear implants) is essential to normal development and clearly beneficial for school performance during the elementary school years. Why, then, does it now appear that many of those advantages diminish or even disappear by the time DHH students reach high school?

Answers to such questions undoubtedly lie in part in the variability among DHH learners that makes instructional methods and materials that might be appropriate for a classroom of hearing students less appropriate for DHH students in the same setting. The challenge might be similar to that encountered in the old one-room school houses in which children of various ages and varying abilities all had to be taught at the same time. Then again, at least all of those (hearing) students came to school fluent in a first language, something frequently missing from the repertoires of young DHH students.


A variety of factors contribute to diversity among DHH learners, many of which parents and teachers cannot do anything about (e.g., family income and race; temperament and the presence of secondary disabilities). The point is that we have to ask the right questions (assuming we can determine what they are) and then make appropriate use of the answers, for example in children’s Individualized Education Plans, whether or not they are the ones that we wanted. All stakeholders in deaf education have the same goal, helping DHH learners to reach their full academic potential, even if we may have different methods and priorities. If we are to best serve those children and their families, each deaf child must be treated as an individual with appropriate evaluation of their strengths and needs at all major decision points relating in development and schooling.


Posted on Oct 20, 2015 by
Marc Marschark
Center for Education Research Partnerships
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
marc.marschark {at} rit.edu

Further reading