Placement Guidelines for Children Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

The issue


One of the most significant events during the educational experience of any deaf or hard-of-hearing (DHH) student is the determination of his or her educational placement(s). Depending upon the age of the child at the time of entry into the special education system, the quality of the diagnostic information may be varied, it may be incomplete, and it may have been developed by persons who are unfamiliar with assessing children with hearing loss. As a result, those providing the information may or may not have possessed the expertise to conduct the appropriate diagnostic procedures or integrate the resulting data in order to determine an appropriate placement. Further, those reviewing the resulting report may or may not be aware of that situation.

What we know

Thanks to newborn hearing screening, the identification of hearing loss is now occurring earlier in children’s lives than ever before. This early identification capacity offers potential benefits to improve educational achievement as well as the potential to develop related social and communication skills for DHH children. In addition, an array of improved and new amplification procedures and technologies is now available to children who require them.  New research on techniques for enhancing educational outcomes and cognitive development of students with hearing loss are available to educators.

In addition, the increasing heterogeneity of DHH students is challenging the capacity of any placement that offers only a single approach to instruction and communication. As a result, a placement decision, at least in part, should be guided by the capacity of the placement to provide access to instruction presented at the correct cognitive level as well as in a communication mode appropriate to each student. Importantly, the conditions present at the time of admission to a placement may need to be modified as the child progresses through the program or, if this cannot be achieved, the placement may need to change.

The offerings of the placement for a DHH child, regardless of its position on the continuum from special to regular settings, should also have the following components:

  • Qualified and credentialed direct care staff,
  • Fluency in the mode(s) of communication appropriate to the child,
  • Ongoing management of the child’s amplification equipment,
  • Access to the full (curricular, co-curricular, and social) life of the school,
  • Capacity to modify services as the child’s strengths and needs change.

The presence of the above components does not guarantee academic success. In order to insure that appropriate placement is achieved to the greatest extent possible, a valid assessment process must be conducted. Doing so will increase the probability that the components needed in order to respond to the individual needs of each child will be provided by the placement. There also must be the capacity to conduct reevaluations to ensure that the needs of the child continue to be served as they evolve and to test the accuracy and validity of the initial assessment diagnostic hypotheses that led to that placement.

What we don’t know

Ensuring that the continuum of educational placements is available to all children entering special education has been (or should be) the touchstone of the placement process. The hypothetical construct of the continuum requires that all placement options are considered equally and the final recommendation is based upon the needs of the student. The continuing emphasis on the least restrictive environment (often erroneously assumed to be synonymous with a general education placement) may be preventing other types of placements from being considered with the same intensity.

The unintended consequence of an a priori notion of where and what a placement should be—prior to a full and accurate diagnostic evaluation—may be the erection of obstacles to other types of placements that might be more appropriate for the student. If certain types of placements, such as a school for the deaf, are considered to be “restrictive” solely on the basis of their distance from the local general education setting, then the consideration of where the child is placed has become more important than the quality and accessibility of the instruction. Because of the large and increasing heterogeneity among DHH children, we still do not have a full understanding of what educational setting(s) will be appropriate for individuals varying on a number of dimensions. To ignore such differences, however, does a disservice to DHH students, their families, and the schools that seek to educate them.


An array of placement options must be available to all children with special needs. For DHH children, any placement option must offer both accessible instruction and communication opportunities as well as the ability to regularly reevaluate the capacity of the placement to provide the correct combination of services, both academic and social-emotional. Only when those characteristics are present will the placement, in fact, be the least restrictive environment for that child.

Posted on Oct 20, 2015 by
Louis Abbate
President Emeritus
Willie Ross School for the Deaf
abbatelouis {at}

Further reading