The Changing Role of Special Schools for the Deaf

The issue


As a result of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 in the United States, the role of special schools for deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) children has been changing.  This law, which was modified and continued as IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) increased access to educational and support services for children with disabilities, most notably opening up public school programs and championing mainstreaming as a desirable placement  for all students.  This federal legislation, coupled with rapid technological advances (which will continue), increased parental involvement in their children’s education, and widely varying teaching techniques have created opportunities for children who are DHH to access a variety of educational programs in diverse settings.  Consequently, special schools for DHH children have experienced a dramatic decrease in campus enrollment, losing a significant percentage of their population to public school programs ranging from full inclusion placements to self- contained classes in local public schools.

What we know and what we don’t know

In order to remain viable and to continue offering services to DHH children and their families, a majority of special schools have redefined their missions. Some schools have been proactive in the identification of unmet needs and have pursued opportunities to expand their programs.  No longer functioning as islands, they are offering diverse programs and extending innovative services to a wider range of students and their families. Using outreach services as a primary tool, schools are reaching new students and families and forging relationships with other service providers.  In the past 25 -30 years, growth in outreach programs/services has emerged in areas including but not limited to

  • Early Intervention
  • Assessment
  • Advocacy
  • Audiological Center Services:  Speech and Hearing Assessment and Habilitation
  • Summer Programs (not only Extended School Year)
  • Resource Center offerings
  • Professional Development
  • Advisory Boards
  • Service Learning
  • Research Programs

Often perceived as “the experts,” special schools are grappling with their role in the education of DHH children not only in their schools, but also as resources for local districts. Parents and teachers in public school programs often look to the school for assistance and training. As schools embrace this role, they become sought after resources for direct service and professional development.  Providing support to teachers, parents and students in urban and rural areas of the state expands and improves relationships between professionals, families and agencies.  If schools embrace these opportunities (as many have) it can be a win-win situation for ALL involved and the perception of the special school becomes more positive since they are seen as a team player.

While every school is different and has its own unique configuration, governance, and programs, there are trends that are common nationwide which have strongly impacted special schools. These are changing populations of children with hearing loss, decreasing numbers of qualified teachers and administrators, shrinking budgets, and expanding curricular needs. Ever-increasing numbers of children with significant additional disabilities (“Deaf +”) require specific support and intensive intervention that schools have not historically provided. There is also a large and growing number of children with cochlear implants, many of whom are seeking an auditory-oral education. For special schools that have, in recent history, focused primarily on American Sign Language as the approach to language and communication, content learning, and cultural identification, this change in student profiles and parent desires has presented a challenge.  Some special schools are beginning to offer options that provide opportunities for a listening and spoken language approach for part of the school day, especially for younger children.  Expanding the curriculum to meet the needs of highly specific populations such as these requires a clear vision, additional funds, and talented personnel.   This is occurring even as the numbers of teachers in our profession are decreasing.  Teacher education programs are closing across the country (deemed to be too small and expensive or unnecessary), and large numbers of current teachers are facing retirement. Experienced administrative leaders are scarce. Budgets are shrinking as public school programs compete for funding and students.


The ability to explore and address any of the changes described above often depends on the governance model and leadership of the special school.  It also depends on the educational and communication philosophy of the school, its resources, and its stated goals. More importantly, it relies on its relationships with parents and faculty, students, and community, legislators and educators to grow and develop the school in new and different approaches to benefit all students and their families.