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This video uses expert interviews and classroom footage to explore some of the conditions that lead to a deaf student’s success in an inclusive setting. . About the video
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Deaf learners have been the subject of educational attention for many years, but not as long as has been the case for learners who are not deaf. In fact, systematic teaching of deaf learners is a relatively young field as a result of historical prejudices by hearing educators and parents who believed that deaf children were either incapable of learning or had serious limitations to their potential because of their deafness. Fortunately, we now have firm evidence that those prejudices were unfounded. However, many educators and parents remain skeptical about the evidence, even though their prejudice now takes more subtle forms. This article will address those points head on and will suggest proactive steps that parents and educators can take in order for deaf learners to fulfill their normal or better potential as future citizens.

This article begins with a review of the history of attitudes toward deaf persons’ potential, followed by what the research now indicates; continues with an explanation of some critically important considerations for constructing equitable and accessible assessment of deaf learners; and concludes with a description of the instructional conditions for optimum learning for deaf learners in a variety of settings.

Video: Teaching Deaf Students in the Inclusive Classroom: Part 2
A continuation of the opening video, this episode discusses optimal classroom arrangement, ways to frame information to aid deaf students’ understanding, and more.

Historical overview

As in some other educational domains, attitudes toward deaf learners have a long and, until recently, mostly sad history. We can, through inference, trace back some of these attitudes into antiquity. For example, the Old Testament includes an admonishment to the Hebrews not to curse the deaf; it is a small leap to infer that such an admonishment would not have been made if hearing citizens had not in fact been cursing the deaf — forcing deaf persons to be hidden or outside of the rest of society.

Later we find that Aristotle — that giant of thought from Ancient Greece — had expressed that the ear was the organ of instruction. Again it is a small leap to infer that Aristotle’s probable view was that if a person could not hear, then she/he could not be taught.

Much later in European history, the right conclusion was drawn for the wrong reasons: In the 16th century and afterward, some successful attempts were made in some Western European countries to teach deaf persons to speak (probably persons with enough residual hearing to make speech imitation possible). Thus it was concluded that deaf persons could, in fact, be taught after all. Of course, we in the 21st century realize how erroneous this conclusion was: It associated the ability to speak with the ability to learn, whereas we now know that there is no cause-effect relationship between those two abilities whatsoever.

20th century beliefs

Jumping ahead to the early 20th century, we pass through a period of historical backsliding once again. In the 1920s, a report from the National Research Council (an arm of the then-young National Academy of Sciences) said that deaf learners were two-to-three years “retarded.”1 The use of that term was unfortunate because it could be interpreted as a reference to mental retardation. The report probably meant that deaf learners were “behind” their hearing counterparts, which would be understandable if deaf persons had been prevented from linguistic experiences: We know that the majority of deaf persons are born into hearing families and therefore get no linguistic mediation from the spoken language nor communication using a visual language in their early years. But regardless of the intention, the connotation of the word “retarded” was undoubtedly damaging to ideas about the cognitive potential of deaf learners.

Later in the 20th century, we find that even some well-regarded special educators were pronouncing that deaf learners were intellectually “inferior,”2 and capable only of concrete, rather than abstract, understanding.3

Breakthroughs in the 1960s

In fact, it was not until the 1960s that two breakthroughs occurred, after centuries of misunderstanding and lowered expectations. One educator published a research article declaring (finally) that no differences existed between deaf and hearing learners’ ability to conceptualize.4 Then a psychologist from outside the field of deafness published an important paper in which he stated that the problem was not with deaf persons, but rather with the tests that were being used to assess them — correctly putting his finger on one of the critical problems in the field.5

Shortly afterward, another highly regarded scholar in the field of deaf education carried out a meta-analysis of a group of research studies that had been done earlier on particular cognitive skills in deaf learners; he concluded that, when considered together, the body of research now showed that deaf learners have the same cognitive potential as hearing learners, even though they demonstrated some different strengths than their hearing peers.6 The key word here is “potential” — meaning that deaf learners could achieve on a par with hearing learners, but that certain actions had to be taken in order to achieve that equity.

That powerful conclusion has still not completely permeated the field of deaf education, but specific attempts were subsequently made during the 1980s and beyond to carry out pro-active cognitive interventions with deaf learners as means of providing the cognitive strategies that they were missing so that their potential could be realized. Those efforts continue at the present time, and represent a most hopeful trend in deaf education.

Late 20th-century advances

Two other movements are worthy of mention to conclude this brief history. The first is the assertiveness of the Deaf community (the capital “D” refers to Deaf identity as a cultural phenomenon). This assertiveness, given fuel by the “Deaf President Now” movement at Gallaudet University in 1988, has contributed to a Deaf pride and cohesion in the Deaf community that has resulted in important political changes. Among the results that were enhanced by efforts of the Deaf community were the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (I.D.E.A). These pieces of legislation set the stage for late 20th-century and 21st-century changes.

The second of these movements is the educational trend, embedded in the I.D.E.A., toward more inclusion of deaf students within classrooms of non-deaf students. This trend, however, has proven to be a mixed blessing for deaf students. In some inclusion classrooms where little or no specialist support is provided, a deaf student can be prevented from direct communication with the teacher if she/he only has the use of a sign-language interpreter (we expand on this point later in this article). On the other hand, the trend toward inclusion of some deaf students has had the advantage of raising academic expectations for deaf learners.

Video: The Importance of Deaf Culture
In this video, experts explain why social interaction is so important and share ideas for connecting deaf students to Deaf culture both within the school and outside it.

Cognitive intervention

Active research studies have been carried out with deaf learners since at least the early 1980s in classroom settings. Several studies have provided the evidence for concluding that deaf learners have similar cognitive potential to hearing learners.

With the establishment of the principle that deaf learners have the same range of cognitive potential as hearing learners,7 a number of studies occurred during the 1980s and 1990s that looked at the enhancement of cognitive development of the deaf learner. The studies used several different programs of cognitive-strategy instruction to investigate the effect of explicit and systematic classroom focus on the teaching of higher-order cognitive strategies and their application to school subject matter. As a group, these studies8 demonstrated that the ingredients of promoting advances in the thinking skills of deaf students are:

  • Adopting a classroom program which uses specifically designed materials,
  • Teachers who are appropriately trained in how to teach thinking strategies,
  • Regular (several-times-per-week) activities on strategies for problem solving.

These three elements, when used in combination, result in measurable effects on cognitive skills in deaf learners when compared to deaf students who do not have this classroom experience.

Instructional enrichment

One study that showed this result was an experiment with high-school-age deaf students9 which was designed to examine the effects of a specific intervention using materials adapted from the Instrumental Enrichment (IE) program for deaf students.10 Six IE cognitive sets of exercises were used over a two-year period with an experimental group of secondary-level deaf students. The exercises gave students the chance to acquire active understanding of such areas as parts-whole relationships, comparison, symmetry, projection of visual relationships, spatial relations, following and composing directions, and classification.

At least twice per week, the specially trained teachers incorporated a series of visual, verbal, and geometric activities from these cognitive activities into the regular subject matter of daily lessons; helped students solve these problems; and conducted metacognitive discussions. Then they discussed how the students’ mental strategies within these problems would be used in subject matter. The group that did these activities performed significantly better than a comparison group in general reasoning; thinking habits as measured by observation; real-world problem-solving skills; and performance on the mathematical concepts, mathematical comprehension, and reading comprehension subtests of the Stanford Achievement Test (Hearing-Impaired).

While the cognitive potential of deaf and hearing students has been demonstrated to be generally equivalent, we must also remember that differences in cognitive style continue to exist. These differences make it all the more essential that cognitive education become a part of teacher preparation in the field. It is equally important to remember that the tests used to determine the cognitive functioning of deaf students in many cases still lack validity and appropriateness,11 thus requiring careful attention to the interpretation of results for such cognitive tests.

Equitable assessment

Several factors are in operation when considering the importance of analyzing assessment tools used with deaf learners. Many written in-school assessments given to deaf students, either teacher-made or published, have been developed by hearing persons with hearing students in mind.

Video: Deafness, Language, and Literacy
This video discusses the role deafness plays in a student’s development of language, and how this affects the way a deaf student may write and speak.

Written tests have traditionally a number of shortcomings for deaf test-takers. These may include: the use of idiomatic language with which a deaf person has no experience; provision of inadequate context in the “stem” of a multiple-choice question before asking the test-taker to select a choice from those given; test questions that have double-negative statements that are confusing to a person who has never heard; multiple embedded dependent clauses in written test questions which are difficult to decipher for meaning; ambiguous or double meanings of some terms; and references to rhyme or music which are simply not in the life experiences of a deaf learner.12 Some of the shortcomings that handicap deaf test-takers are illustrated in the following examples of written test questions.

Shortcoming #1: Insufficient context in question stem

Most standardized examinations make significant use of multiple-choice questions. Each of these questions usually begins with what is known as a stem — an introductory sentence or two which establishes the question, followed by the choices from which the test-taker must select one. Persons who are deaf require additional context by comparison with hearing test-takers in order to adequately establish the mental set upon which the choices are based, before the test-taker moves to selecting the actual choices.

This example demonstrates a test question that provides insufficient context in the question stem, and therefore creates a barrier to understanding for the deaf student:

  1. The Civil War was a historical example of:
    1. A regional conflict based on economic issues
    2. A regional conflict based on slavery issues
    3. A national conflict involving political issues on the national level
    4. An international conflict involving multiple nations
    5. Two of the above

Revised to give adequate context and reduce the barrier, this question stem might read:

  1. The American Civil War was fought from 1861-1865; it presented both
    sides with complex issues. These issues involved different segments
    of several groups of people. Please select one answer from the choices
    below which best describes the Civil War as a whole.

Shortcoming #2: Use of double-negative statements

Sometimes a double-negative construction is used in the stems of multiple-choice questions. Double-negatives are unnecessarily confusing to the deaf test-taker and prevent him or her from getting to the real meaning of a test item.

Use of a double negative:

  1. Which one of the following choices was not a reason why General Pickett did not succeed in the Battle at Gettysburg?
    1. Poor communication with officers
    2. Poor planning
    3. Insufficient manpower
    4. Insufficient equipment
    5. Troops spread too far and wide

Double negative now removed, but with the same meaning for the question:

  1. Many factors enter into a military battle. Select the one choice below that was not important in General Pickett’s failure at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Shortcoming #3: Use of idiomatic expressions

The use of idiomatic expressions is particularly confusing to the deaf test-taker, whose exposure to English is limited to the written form, and is based on being educated to interpret literally what is written. Idiomatic expressions, on the other hand, require that the reader does not interpret literally. The reader must also have linguistic experiences that are varied and depend to some extent on auditory input.

Use of idiomatic expressions in a question:

  1. When the detective in the story approached the witness, the witness decided to try to pull the wool over the eyes of the detective. Select the most likely result of this action:
    1. The detective saw through what the witness was trying to do.
    2. The detective was not fooled by the witness.
    3. The detective gave up and went back to the police station.
    4. The witness now believed he was safe.
    5. The detective tried a different line of questioning.

Revised to eliminate idiomatic expressions, but with the meaning intact:

  1. When the detective approached the witness, the witness decided to lie cleverly. Select the most likely result of this action:
    1. The detective understood what the witness was doing.
    2. The detective was able to understand what really happened.
    3. The detective quit and went back to the police station.
    4. The witness now believed he was safe.
    5. The detective tried a different group of questions.

Shortcoming #4: Use of multiple meanings

Many words in the English language have more than one meaning. But using such terms creates ambiguities for the deaf test-taker, possibly preventing him or her from accessing what the test question is really asking. Unless the examination is a test of understanding multiple meanings of words in English (as opposed to tests of knowledge or skills in science, history, mathematics, etc.), words with multiple meanings are best eliminated.

Test questions with words having multiple meanings:

  1. When an employer buys supplies for an office, some of the staple items include paper, computers, and telephones. List five other items that would be important:
  2. The army decided to run the blockade outside Savannah Harbor. Which action would they take first?

The same questions, with ambiguous terms removed:

  1. When an employer buys supplies for an office, some of the basic items…
  2. The army decided to smash through the blockade…

Shortcoming #5: Use of embedded clauses

Complex construction may unintentionally mask the true meaning of a sentence. In particular, the use of embedded clauses may make it difficult for the deaf test-taker to follow.

Test question with embedded clause:

  1. The army nonetheless fought on in a way that, when examined historically, was truly heroic. Which of the choices below best explains their heroism?

Test question without the embedded clause but with the same meaning:

  1. Nonetheless the army fought on. When we look at their actions as historians do, we can see that the troops were true heroes. Which of the choices below best explains how they were heroic?

Shortcoming #6: Inappropriate structure of a question

Some test questions start out in a form that makes them appear to be declarative sentences. Then, mid-sentence, a question word appears that converts the declarative statement into what some people call a “whiplash” question. This construction can be particularly confusing to a person who has not had auditory experience of the language.

Item that starts as a sentence and becomes a question:

  1. The presidential election of 1860 was an example of which kind of political contest?:

Item rewritten as a straightforward question:

  1. What type of political contest was the presidential election of 1860?

Shortcoming #7: Content that is inappropriate to the experience of deaf test-takers

Some standardized examinations pose items to the test-taker that require the understanding of rhyme in literature. Because rhyme cannot be determined by spelling alone (because English has multiple spellings for similar sounds), the only way that a test-taker can select the correct answer is with an auditory memory of how the words sound when spoken. Such items thus negatively discriminate against test-takers who are deaf.


  1. Select from the following five choices the word that most closely rhymes with the word “enough”:
    1. bough
    2. tough
    3. through
    4. although
    5. hero

Leveling the playing field

When test questions include these shortcomings, an assessment becomes more a test of understanding English from the viewpoint of a native user of English who has had auditory input than the intended test of the subject matter at hand (e.g., mathematics problems, history items, scientific data, etc.). Such tests create a critical barrier, blocking access by the deaf learner to the test itself.

Thus, a first step is to revise written examinations for deaf learners in order to remove or correct these shortcomings, of which the test’s developer may be completely unaware. A next step is to broaden the approaches to the assessment process so as to include a variety of other kinds of measures, rather than a dependency only on written examinations. Examples of such other assessments would include the development of a portfolio of a student’s academic work to be analyzed by educators using some well-designed rubric, individual interactive interviews to assess the learner’s real understanding of a body of content, and observation of the deaf learner’s performance of some presentation or work with the subject matter. Such broadening can constitute a far more thorough evaluation than could be possible through a test alone, but requires the will and preparation by the educator to carry out such assessments. By doing so, however, the educator levels the playing field in an equitable manner for the deaf learner.

The role of the family

When considering the cognitive potential of deaf learners, it is critical to consider the importance of family backgrounds. When a deaf child grows up in a deaf family, sign language is used from an early age. This allows for the development of a firm language base for the child, which serves as a platform for later learning English as a second language in the school environment.

But as noted previously, more than 90% of deaf people grow up in hearing families. Often, the deaf child who grows up as part of a hearing family has no language mediation prior to entering school. Because a deaf person cannot hear, he or she has no access to the auditory language used regularly in the home. And because many hearing families (understandably) do not use a visual language, the deaf person also lacks access to what would be a natural visual communication (sign language).

Fortunately, this situation is now changing because of current growth in early intervention programs, which teach hearing family members to set a visual environment for the deaf member and in some cases teach some basic sign language to use with the deaf child. More hearing families are also becoming aware of the need to stimulate a deaf child to engage just as much in puzzle-solving, thinking games, and problem-solving activities as is done with the hearing members of the same family. Ideally, the deaf child would also enter a special pre-school or school environment in which the teacher is appropriately trained in the education of deaf students and employs sign language in instruction and interaction. In these environments, fellow students also use sign language, so normal social development can occur at the same time.

But where these ideal conditions are not met, valuable years of language development have been lost for the deaf child of a hearing family prior to entering school. Educators, particularly in early grades, should remember that deaf students may not have entered school with the same early childhood preparation as their hearing classmates. This difference in pre-school education should not be mistaken for a difference in cognitive potential.

Video: The Importance of Collaboration
This video addresses the elements of a successful collaborative partnership among the deaf student, the classroom teacher, the teacher of the deaf, the student’s family members, the educational interpreter, and school administrators.

Instructional conditions

If the majority of deaf learners in today’s educational world are being instructed in environments in which most of the other learners are hearing learners, we now must address the conditions that would optimize achievement for the deaf learners there.

Let us begin first with an analysis of the conditions that have led to success for deaf learners when they have been in specialized environments — e.g., special day classes with other deaf learners, or special schools (residential or day) for deaf learners. In such settings, the following conditions have applied and are still important:

  • A critical mass of other deaf learners, in order to facilitate both academic exchanges of ideas and socialization.
  • A teacher who is specially trained as an educator of deaf students, with an academic degree in Deaf Education that includes background in history, theory, methodology, and supervised practice in the field.
  • An environment in which the medium of communication is visual — either the sign language of the country (American Sign Lanugage — ASL — in the USA and Canada).
  • A teacher who has passed an examination for fluency in sign language.
  • A school environment that is deaf-friendly — i.e., there are accommodations for deaf learners such as strobe lights for fire alarms, etc.
  • A school environment where activities are especially designed to enable full participation by deaf learners — e.g., sports and games in which deaf players are given equal access by having supervisors who ensure visual communication during the playing time.

While more than the above could be listed, these constitute some of the critical components of an environment that is fully accessible to deaf learners in the sense of giving full access to academic subject matter, communication about subject matter, and interaction with adults and peers in a smooth and natural manner.

How could these conditions be duplicated in an inclusive school setting? The short answer is “only partially.” Still, certain provisions can be made that at least approach the same equitable access that is provided in these special settings. At the same time, we need to recall that deaf and hard-of-hearing students in today’s educational environment comprise a wide variety of needs, as is of course also true for the breadth of needs in hearing learners.

For example, some deaf students have a profound or severe loss and communicate best in sign language only; others use a combination of sign language and speaking because they have some residual hearing which is facilitated by one or two hearing aids; others have had cochlear implants and are learning to speak to some degree and have some hearing, but still need a visual-language environment for part of the school day; and there are other variations such as deaf students who use an English-based version of sign language (English syntax with borrowed American Sign Language signs). Thus, it is difficult to make any single set of recommendations. However, in general, the following conditions would benefit most deaf or hard of hearing learners of the various kinds who are educated in inclusive school settings.

Video: Modes of Communication
This video shares some easily-implemented strategies for working with students who use a variety of modes of communication, including interpreters, hearing aids, and cochlear implants.
  • A classroom teacher who is at least tuned into the need for communicating visually whenever possible (e.g., facing deaf students when speaking with them, using visual aids in instruction, etc.). The teacher can also learn at least some basic signs for direct communication with the deaf learner.
  • A team of certified full-time sign language interpreters who can take turns in interpreting according to the professional guidelines of the sign-language-interpreter profession. Interpreters provide continuous expressive and receptive communication for all verbal interchanges in the classroom for the deaf learner, such that little or no information is lost. Of course, in sign-language interpreting, a brief delay occurs between the expression and the interpretation either for or from the deaf learner. Thus the classroom teacher must ensure that only one person in the classroom is speaking at a time.
  • The availability of a specialist teacher in the school building as a resource teacher. This person should be a fully-trained teacher in the field of deaf education, and act as a resource and advisor to all the teachers who have deaf students in the school. This same teacher may also provide individual or small-group instruction to deaf students on a pull-out basis for supplemental instruction — usually in English language development.
  • Training workshops for the regular classroom teachers to familiarize them with the needs and learning styles of deaf learners, and ways to communicate and plan instruction that is appropriate for access to the curriculum for the deaf learner.
  • Parent conferences involving both the classroom teacher and the specialist teacher, in which advice and feedback is provided to the parents on how their deaf child is progressing. This team should also advise on appropriate placement for the ensuing year, especially if the inclusive setting does not seem to be resulting in appropriate academic progress. In such a situation, a different kind of placement may be called for.
  • Whenever possible, placement in a classroom in which the physical arrangement of student seating is in some type of semi-circle or U-shape. This arrangement enables the deaf learner not only to have continuous visual contact with the teacher but also to see how other (hearing) students are responding.
  • A school administration that is sensitive to the needs of deaf students, such that they are attentive to providing further accommodations when needed. By the same token, the administration must be honestly open to alternative placements for the deaf learner if the inclusive placement is not succeeding. If placement in a special setting, such as a residential school or a special day class, would clearly better serve the needs of a deaf learner, the administration should not resist and should be open to such a placement.
graphic showing the optimal arrangement of an inclusive classroom to facilitate the success of a deaf student

This diagram illustrates one possible classroom arrangement that would benefit a deaf learner.
Click on the image for a larger version. Diagram by .

With the provision of the above seven conditions, as expensive as they may be, it is possible for some (not all) deaf learners to succeed in inclusive environments. Far too often, however, school administration recommends an inclusive placement only for financial reasons in order to save the school district the cost of a special placement. But the cost in terms of missed academic success for the deaf child is truly the most expensive and unrecoupable cost in such a case.

Video: Deafness, Self-Esteem, and the Inclusive Classroom
A deaf student surrounded by hearing peers in an inclusive classroom may experience feelings of isolation. The classroom teacher, however, can play a critical role in supporting a deaf student’s self-esteem and sense of belonging within the culture of the classroom.


The education of deaf persons has a rich history which provides a platform for current instruction in a way that maximizes intellectual and social potential. Most readers are familiar with the provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act that mandates wheelchair ramps for physically disabled people in all public buildings. Far fewer people, however, understand the deaf equivalency of that legal provision. Deaf learners require special provisions in order to provide linguistic access to the curriculum and to society. That kind of full access constitutes the “ramp” that is also mandated but often not understood. However, with the proper knowledge, commitment, preparation, and expenditure, that access can be provided so that all deaf learners, in one way or another, are enabled to achieve their full cognitive potential and the waste of human resources can be stopped for all time.