Creating a Thriving Village for Multilingual and Multicultural Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, and Hard of Hearing Students

The issue

The responsibility for educating Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, and Hard of Hearing (DDBDDHH) students has rested under the purview of Special Education. Best practices for working with children with disabilities has typically been the approach applied to the teaching and learning of DDBDDHH students. However, the diversity of the student population being served in Deaf Education should take into account more than just hearing status. Additionally, how we prepare professionals to work with DDBDDHH students, should be expanded to include diversity in home language, disability, race and ethnicity, immigration status, to name a few.

Based on a census conducted by Gallaudet Research Institute (GRI) in 2013, approximately, 50% of the DDBDDHH student population are students of color. This means that half of our students come from a family that uses a dialect and/or language other than the standard United States English that is typically taught within schools. Based on the same census, roughly 25% of those students come from homes where Spanish is used. Though consistent data has not been reported on other home languages and dialects apart from Spanish, this is an area that needs to be explored. Additionally, 40% receive school services for disability categories other than “Deaf”.

What we know

The student demographic for Deaf Education is similar to the nation-wide demographic for general education settings. The demographic imperative–the major demographic differences between the professionals in the field and the student population– is ever present in Deaf Education as it is in general education; with ninety percent teachers that are hearing, White, and use English as their primary and/or only language. We know that the demographic imperative has presented major challenges for students of diverse race/ethnic, home language, low socio-economic, immigration, and ability backgrounds within general education schools. Attempts to address and mitigate the impact of the demographic imperative can be noted in the development of multicultural education, urban education, ethnic studies, and bilingual education programs; as well as through asset pedagogies such as culturally responsive pedagogy and culturally sustaining pedagogy.

Benefits from the aforementioned programs and pedagogies were:

  1. Improved academic success of students who come from diverse backgrounds.
  2. Exposed students to leaders from their cultural and linguistic backgrounds and/or to be taught using methods that leveraged their experiences and backgrounds as assets in the classroom.
  3. Increased classroom engagement, better relationships with teachers, and improved graduation rates.
  4. Strong parental/familial involvement, in ways that were culturally-appropriate. Schools which value and connect with families as a necessary resource, have also found the family factor to be extremely influential with students’ academic outcomes.

What we don’t know

Within the DDBDDHH student population, graduation with high school diplomas instead of certificates and achieving grade-appropriate literacy skills continues to be a topic of discussion within Deaf Education. Most of these students are students of color whose home life, culture, and languages largely differ from that within their school settings. In exchange for a (re)habilitative approach, Deaf Education has yet to systematically apply asset pedagogies or other programs which leverage the diversity of the student population as part of everyday school experiences.

As a result, we do not yet know:

  1. how teaching practices and programs that value racial/ethnic, linguistic, class, ability, and other differences could impact the school experience and academic outcomes of DDBDDHH students;
  2. the characteristics of family involvement/engagement from different cultural groups to be considered for our student population (be careful with assumptions that “they just don’t care”);
  3. the experiences of our student-body and their families within the current political climate in regards to immigration, language barriers, cultural barriers, economic barriers, emotional barriers, etc. and;,
  4. how school and other service professionals can support families to address barriers that impact student outcomes.


The demographic imperative shows that our conceptualizations of the DDBDDHH student population need to be broadened to consider the multilingual and multicultural needs of the student body. Below we list several implications for professionals:

    1. More cross-disciplinary collaboration with teachers and teacher educators who are trained and knowledgeable about working with diverse students, including the barriers and knowledge-bases they bring with them to the school context.
    2. Utilize families as a resource. Think of creative ways to encourage families to be part of the “village” to raise DDBDDHH multilingual/multicultural students.
    3. Be a resource for families. Provide a safe and accessible space for families by engaging with them through culturally-appropriate ways. Support them throughout the school year by forming authentic relationships and by connecting them with other multilingual/multicultural families raising DDBDDHH students.

Posted on July 12, 2019 by
Onudeah Nicolarakis
Teachers College Columbia University

Gloshanda Lawyer
Lamar University


Further reading