Social Capital and Deaf Teenagers

The issue

Opportunities for deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) teenagers in Western nations have improved over the past generation across various areas, including improved hearing technology, access to a wide variety of educational placements, and improved listening as well as language development. Despite this progress, DHH teenagers often have diminished outcomes in areas such as mental health and social communication compared to typically developing peers.

The development of social capital in DHH teenagers is one way parents, teachers, and adolescents can generate positive results. Social capital refers to connections between individuals and groups. It is measured using network size, trust, and the mutual benefits between individuals and the groups to which they belong. Social capital is generated through networks and is best viewed as an asset that can be exchanged for benefits. It is often related to an individual’s cultural capital, which may include educational attainments, and language ability, for example.

Social capital is often divided into two broad categories: bonding and bridging. Bonding social capital refers to the close groups we belong to, such as our family, who are often similar to us and nurture us. In contrast, bridging social capital refers to groups, such as sporting clubs, that are not as emotionally close but may offer opportunities that are not available through our own bonding social capital, such as family networks. It is desirable to have a balance of bonding and bridging social capital.

What we know and what we don’t know

Minimal research has been completed directly investigating the social capital of DHH teenagers. There is some research on the benefits of social capital for DHH participants in other age groups and teenagers with disabilities other than hearing loss. However, more research is required into how social capital might be influential in shaping outcomes for DHH teenagers.

One of the most consistently reported benefits of social capital relates to wellbeing. Quality of life was reported to be higher in groups with robust social capital, as was self-efficacy, a measure of an individual’s feelings of competence in various situations. Having a more extensive network of people to relate to is particularly important for individuals who have compromised personal resources, such as language difficulties or low self-efficacy. Additionally, access to online networks, such as Facebook, was seen to give individuals access to bridging social capital. The benefits of online networks could be greater for DHH teenagers as they may be at risk of social isolation; however, more research is required.

Families are vital in developing bonding social capital in their children, particularly through parental advocacy. Families may demonstrate their social capital at school through participating in Individual Education Plan meetings, for example, and this demonstration of social capital can help foster resilience in their children. Unfortunately, parental social capital is not always valued by school staff, who sometimes have low expectations for DHH students. Additionally, parental social and cultural capital is less valued if it is from groups other than the dominant societal cultural groups, such as families from non-English-speaking backgrounds.

The development of social capital can lead to improved inclusivity and diversity in schools and tertiary institutions. Practically, this may involve giving DHH teenagers opportunities to participate and be actively included in learning groups with a variety of students. This, in turn, leads to the sharing of knowledge and a sense of cooperative learning. The extent to which schools and teachers are implementing these policies requires further research. Additionally, there is a clear link with the development of a healthy identity through social capital. Identity is constructed from a combination of our own beliefs and the influence of the groups to which we belong. This can occur through d/Deaf role models who may help DHH teenagers understand the unspoken rules of school and wider society. It may also involve accessing people and groups who can develop postschool employment and study opportunities.


Social capital has a “buffering effect” in that it can act as an additional resource for DHH teenagers. Part of social capital appeal is that it is not limited to those with well-developed parental advocacy or personal resources such as language, speech, and literacy. On the contrary, there is some evidence to suggest that those with reduced language skills benefit the most from increased social capital. Social capital development should not be viewed as an end result; rather, social capital operates as an exchange point, or currency for real-life outcomes such as a sense of inclusion and identity and access to mentoring and friendships.

Posted on April 20, 2021 by
Timothy J. Byatt
University of Newcastle / NextSense

The author acknowledges and give thanks to Dr. Jill Duncan and Dr. Kerry Dally for their generous advice on an earlier draft of this ebulletin.

Further reading