Schools for the Deaf: An Excellent Option

The issue

It is an unarguable fact that parents want the best education possible for their children.  For most, the path they select is the elementary, middle, and high school closest to their home. When the child is deaf or hard of hearing (DHH), that decision can become complicated, fraught with politics, and full of “experts” pointing in different directions.

Families in urban areas may have multiple options, that is, a neighborhood school with an interpreter or center-based classroom with a teacher of the deaf. What happens when the placement recommended by the IEP team or identified by the parent is a school for the deaf, which may be a considerable distance from home?   Below are key questions/considerations to help parents make the best decision for their child and family.

What we know

DHH children who do not have cognitive challenges can learn and progress academically at the same rate as hearing children given the right educational environment and full access to language and communication; however, one-size does not fit all. No one placement is right for all DHH children. The IDEA provides for a full continuum of educational placements in order for children’s individual needs to be met.  Schools for the deaf are one of the placement options. Schools for the deaf may be the only environment in which a particular child has complete, unfettered access to instruction, language, communication, social interactions and activities during and after school, without reliance on an interpreter. Further, children need role models to fully develop their identity and to be able to envision a future for themselves in which they may maximize their potential.

What we don’t know

Safety:  Protecting their children is a parent’s paramount duty and concern.  Therefore, it is important to ask questions of any school, whether neighborhood, center-based, day school for the deaf, or residential: How will the school ensure my child’s safety during school and after school activities? What are the procedures for background checks for employees? Volunteers? What are the school’s safety practices for emergencies? What is the school’s policy/practice re: bullying or harassment?

If parents select a school for the deaf too far away for the child to go home daily, additional questions are critical: How will living apart from the family affect the child? Does he/she have the emotional stability to be separated from parents and siblings all week? How does the school encourage/facilitate communication between child and family? What are the after school and evening supervision practices and staff-to-student ratios? What are the qualifications and training of the residential staff? What recreational and academic-support activities are available during the afternoons/evenings? How are roommates determined and safety ensured within bedrooms? How will the child’s medical needs be met on a routine and emergency basis?

Education: A school’s educational outcomes are the highest priority after safety.  Parents should ask for information from about student achievement and request data/evidence to back up the responses: What interventions are available to address deficits if the student is not at grade level? How do students at the school perform on school-wide and statewide assessments? Does the school have a clear communication approach? Is language planning part of each child’s program? What transition services are available to prepare students for next steps after graduation? How will the school satisfy students’ needs re: career development, work experience, and career/technical education? What percentage of students enter post secondary education or work after high school? What does the school’s graduate longitudinal data show? Do students complete college; successfully maintain jobs? Is the school accredited? By whom?


The right placement at the right time is critical to a child’s success. Timeliness is so important the IDEA requires the IEP team to discuss and determine/reaffirm placement every time the IEP is reviewed, minimally once a year.  Too often consideration of a school for the deaf is a reaction to a child’s failure or behavioral concerns. Instead, schools for the deaf should be considered proactively to give students the benefit of rich instructional expertise, qualified related services and ancillary staff, role models, peers and social opportunities.

Parents must be watchdogs over their child’s educational journey, asking hard questions each year about their child’s progress compared to hearing peers, and demanding interventions and/or changes in placement or services when delays are not being appropriately addressed/mitigated.

Children have one opportunity at an education.  Schools for the deaf can offer an excellent placement that may be right for your child now or in the future.

Posted on Jan. 12, 2018 by
Jane Mulholland
Washington State Center for Childhood Deafness and Hearing Loss
jane.mulholland {at}


Further reading