Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Deaf Education: Numbering our flaws


This is an article about numbers. It does not purport to be anything else. I will delineate numbers that varying researchers spent quite a bit of time gathering, and then I will discuss them briefly and draw connections to the potential political consequences of having the numbers listed define our reality. It is my personal opinion that the energy of our community is wasted on dithering about identity politics, such as whether or not an individual is little “d” or big “D”.

The focal point of the deaf community’s discourse should be the numbers listed below and their devastating impact on all of our futures. Our education is poor; our prospects are poor, and the path ahead is even bleaker. Blue-collar opportunities given to our predecessors are no longer available to us. Fortune is a lovely combination of the right amount of language acquisition, with the right amount of support, and the wherewithal to choose a field accommodating to the deaf. At best, we toil in obscurity while hearing people use our work to advance in fields rightfully ours. At worst, we scrap with the government bureaucracy of our colonizers for meager checks and benefits.

The numbers that brick our paths are not new. I’ve seen them bandied about in intense discussions. The numbers hang there, unchained and improperly defined; they are wasted opportunities to seize the crux of the deaf community’s failure to educate itself and unbind our prophesied failures. My hopes are that having some numbers listed with points to sources will provide a foundation for future discourses, on this site and elsewhere.

The numbers hang there, unchained and improperly defined; they are wasted opportunities to seize the crux of the deaf community’s failure to educate itself and unbind our prophesied failures.

I have organized how I present the numbers in the following ways:
  • Numbers about English Language Acquisition
  • Numbers about Educational Policy, Educational Research and the Teachers of the Deaf
  • Numbers about Reading
  • Numbers about Employment
For brevity’s sake, each category will have up to five facts.

Numbers about English Language Acquisition

  • Deaf children acquire English vocabulary at 60% of the rate that hearing children do
  • By age 12, the English vocabulary levels of Deaf children lag 4 to 5 years behind their hearing peers
  • Implanted deaf children score lower on English vocabulary assessments such as the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test than their hearing peers
  • English Vocabulary acquisition among users of constructed sign systems (e.g. SEE, SEE II, MCE) is less than half of their hearing peers

This section could have easily been called Numbers about English Vocabulary Acquisition. But, English vocabulary acquisition is an enormous aspect of language acquisition. High English vocabulary abilities correlate strongly with increased reading ability. A lack of English vocabulary can hinder deaf high school graduates in college and beyond. Oral proponents would do well to note that even implants do not contribute to superior English vocabulary development, and neither does use of simultaneous communication systems.

Numbers about Educational Policy, Educational Research, and the Teachers of the Deaf
  • More than 10% of all teachers of the deaf lack the proper certificates and credentials for their positions
  • An assessment of two volumes (over 50 articles) of the American Annals of the Deaf, the nation’s oldest journal of deaf education research and policy found the following:
  1. No article covered math and science research for the deaf population
  2. Almost as many articles covered speech and language use (6) as reading and writing and literacy needs (8)
  3. Only 2 articles covered technology use and work skills among deaf children
  • In 2006, the ratio between deaf education graduates and deaf students was 1 for every 56
  • Sign language comprehension among hearing teachers of the deaf, when measured in “Understands Signs as well as English” ranges from 15% to 35%
  • Only 45% of teachers of the deaf are considered to “sign well”

Think about the jobs your deaf friends have, if they are lucky enough to be employed. Off the top of my head, most people I know are employed in VRS Outreach, Group Homes, Deaf-related Social Services, and as Teaching Assistants. The majority of deaf educators are white, hearing women with inferior visual language abilities. Educational policy for the deaf is dictated by hearing administrators and hearing researchers, many with shaky grasps of visual language and limited knowledge of the challenges faced by those they purport to support and nurture.

The focus of educational research remains speech, language, reading and writing, whereas the skills required by our workforce: math, science, and technology, are often ignored or left on the wayside. Meanwhile, the number of teachers available for a growing population of deaf students remains critically low.

Numbers about Reading
  • The average deaf person graduates high school with a 4th grade reading-comprehension level
  • 20% of deaf high school graduates possess a reading level at or below the second grade
  • Reading levels among the deaf school population are 5 years behind their hearing peers

For all our emphasis on reading and writing research, and language acquisition among deaf children, the numbers still sicken. 20% of our community reads at or below the second grade level. Our average reading comprehension remains at the fourth grade. How can we be expected to work and function in society when we are barely literate; when the peers we depend on to rally against audism and work with us to develop appropriate policy lack the ability to read a newspaper cover to cover?

How can we be expected to work and function in society when we are barely literate; when the peers we depend on to rally against audism and work with us to develop appropriate policy lack the ability to read a newspaper cover to cover?

Numbers about employment

  • 60% of deaf high school graduates are considered ill prepared for college
  • Approximately 50,000 deaf people collect some form of social security disability benefits
  • 90% of deaf people are under or unemployed
  • 60% of deaf adults are unemployed

The end result of all our failures to ensure a proper language environment for deaf children and manage educational policy for deaf education is thusly—only 40% of our community is working. Those who are lucky enough to have jobs are underemployed, or paid insufficient wages. A vast number are on welfare. We have no purchasing power. We cannot donate to political powers. Our associations barely scrape by and have to beg for money. Our ability to protest businesses that fail to serve our needs are limited.


How many of our community activists collect welfare? How many are content to produce videos and artwork and columns and never progress past goading others into action? Hearing researchers in deaf education and deaf policies often bemoan the fact that there aren’t enough deaf people in their field. When so many schools and programs for the deaf lack qualified teachers, an extremely small number of deaf people are entering the field. I would argue that as a community, we have more value than teaching hearing people our language, and selling VRS products to our community. We are better than cannibalizing our intellectuals for not being deaf enough, or for not following a particular form of deaf epistemological philosophy. We should be shoring our best, those who were lucky enough to graduate high school and college, into deaf education and deaf-related research fields. Perhaps it’s too late to do much for our generation, but if we heed the numbers, future generations of deaf children can be spared our failures.

Those are numbers worth counting on.

Note: Information was taken from various of sources. For a list of sources, please email Jonathan Henner at

Jonathan Henner is a graduate of Illinois State and Walden Universities. He is currently an Ed.D candidate at Boston University.


  1. Great article, Mr. Henner!
    Are you the same guy with the cool hat in the Youtube video that discussed positive theory, social construction and Deafhood?

    Since the 1950's, public schools in America have been taking John Dewey's ideology (Humanist Manifesto I, II and III, ) and using it in their classes, emphasizing strong encouragement for a better society to youths in public school from Kindergarten up to the 12th grade.
    After that, the youth's worldview shifted from moral relativism to proletariat morality which has a devastating effect on disabled people, similar to the death panel in health care. Example: They will start with the elders, who need to "go away", and then with deficient babies, where abortion is the "remedy", and lastly, putting disabled people to "sleep" to cut costs in the name of the state.

    We are FAR behind and unable to bring society up to speed about the Deaf culture because they are too far ahead of us.

    Welcome to the 21st century "Brave New World" society.


  2. Thanks, Ecnarb. I am he of the funky hat. Think I actually still have that hat somewhere.

  3. Jon,
    Cool. I enjoyed watching your video clips back then. In my merely opinion, I have some issues with the "ideas" such as Michael Foucault. It is like a deaf chicken voted for KFC. :-)
    Have a happy new year!

  4. I'll go over a couple of points with you. However, I think this is an excellent article, a blueprint of sorts, on how Deaf Education needs to proceed in the 21st Century and beyond.

    *Numbers about English Language Acquisition*
    Actually, the argument is L1 acquisition from the family environment in the first 2-4 years of a Deaf/HH infant. If the family speaks Spanish, the Deaf/HH infant needs to acquire it. Same for Chinese, French, or whatever. This is why Deaf infants from Deaf parents are usually far ahead of Deaf peers from hearing families.

    Then, in elementary school, from PK to 5th grade, the Deaf/HH student can leverage his/her L1 language into English proficiency. This is where it breaks down; many Deaf/HH students are linquistically delayed in L1, their family language, and have difficulties in leveraging this knowledge into attaining English proficiency.

    *Numbers about Educational Policy, Educational Research, and the Teachers of the Deaf*
    You're pretty spot on. We need TOD's that are proficient in *both* ASL and English. Especially at the elementary levels, where we need to promote literacy in the English language.

    The workforce in the 21st century is vastly different than in the previous century. I agree that we need more emphasis on Math and Science in educating our Deaf/HH people of tomorrow. Moreover, since teaching Math and Science is an interdisciplinary endeavor, the students will also acquire the vital skills of critical thinking and attain literacy skills needed to master such subjects.

    *Numbers about employment*
    The numbers, I'm afraid, speak the truth. However, huge swaths of hearing people are unemployed as well. It is very hard, even for a well-educated Deaf person, to compete in this highly competitive environment battered by global wage arbitrage and outsourcing.

    We need to come up with creative solutions that encourage businesses to hire highly qualified individuals with disabilities and retain them. (And no, tax credits alone will not do it.)

    One such solution may be to 'subsidize' VRI usage for Deaf/HH people employed in the workforce at a wide variety of companies. This could be paid for by a small payroll tax incurred for all individuals. This way, Deaf/HH people will have one less barrier to face in attaining full employment, retaining such employment, and gaining promotion opportunities.

    Thank you for compiling the statistics. A well-researched article can lay the foundation for better things. Time will tell.

  5. Great article!

    I would love to see more deaf and hard of hearing individuals work in deaf education and deaf-related research. We need to hear more from those who live it and truly understand it.

    Sometimes it is hard being the only hard of hearing itinerant teacher where I can only identify with most of my students. I feel like I have to constantly teach others about what it is like to have a hearing loss. It would be nice to be able to work side by side with more deaf and hoh individuals and not have to explain myself over and over again.


  6. Interesting article. Some of these numbers seem extremely misleading. Some teachers, for example, choose subject licenses rather than deaf education licenses, especially in states which don't accept deaf ed or dhh
    Iicenses. I have no 'deaf education' credits, just a master's in secondary education, for example.

    I'd really like to see sources for your numbers about employment and social security, since as far as I've seen those numbers simply aren't available in any meaningful form. Could you put up a couple links?

    Thanks, Joseph

  7. Joseph,

    The numbers themselves are not misleading. Here is the actual quote from Johnson (2004):

    Although the overall figure for individuals teaching in special education without appropriate preparation is 10% (U.S. Department of Education, 2002), the figure for deaf education appears to be substantially higher. For one thing, 13 states and several U.S. territories do not offer a deaf education teacher preparation program. In one state, West Virginia, 20 of 76 teachers for the deaf were "on permit or out of field certification" during 2000-2001

    The numbers about lacking certification tells us several things, and it's important not to use your own anecdotal experiences as a counterpoint to them. Deaf pedagogy requires a different sort of knowledge than regular pedagogy. For many teachers, mere subject certification may be insufficient to provide a quality teaching environment for their deaf students. Rather than feeling defensive about your own lack of certification, it's better reframe your perspective as "other teachers that lack certification aren't as talented as I am. What can I do about this?"

    Do email me for the original article with all citations and references. You'll be able to get my numbers from them.

  8. Actually, even schools like MSSD at Gallaudet are moving away from deaf and hard of hearing certification and more towards subject specific certifications, especially since the government in many cases is no longer accepting of those licenses.

    As for my own qualifications: again, I've got a master's in secondary education, but another master's in deaf studies, and my first thesis was on working conditions in deaf education.

    So I'm qualified to say those numbers are misleading. Many teachers of the deaf are not themselves deaf. Also, out of field certification means exactly what I'm talking about-subject-specific license certification, meaning that one who teaches English has passed English exams and holds English certification nationally. It doesn't mean deaf or hard of hearing, in most cases, especially since that license is being phased out.

    Rather than calling these flaws in the Deaf community, how about reframing your blog and talking about flaws in the nationwide education system as a whole?

  9. P.S., just to clarify, 'Deaf Education' credits refer to credits for a deaf ed license in American schools... Which in many states doesn't give Deaf people the same rights as regular teachers. I've only taken secondary ed classes, and in Europe Deaf Studies is considered a social science, so while I've take classes studying patterns in deaf ed internationally, none of them are considered 'Deaf Ed.' Many Deaf schools are no longer hiring those with a Deaf Ed license, preferring subject specific licenses if possible, especially at the high school level.

  10. I certainly hope you don't look down to people that teach sign language or Sell VRS Products. Installing VP devices aren't always easy and I'm thankful that job opportunities has opened up for us. Many deaf people depend on us to maintain their VP System. Alot of them if their VP goes offine they start screaming and cannot fix it themselves. What will it be like if the installers went on strike. Comcast have their own hearing people and they don't even understand about our VP devices. So I certainly hope you don't look us down.

  11. "Fortune is a lovely combination of the right amount of language acquisition, with the right amount of support, and the wherewithal to choose a field accommodating to the deaf."

    There are some d/Deaf who have acquired language well, but still struggle in their fields of choice. A "field accommodating to the deaf" is extremely rare, most employers and supervisors are hearing unfortunately. Hearing job interviewees are favored and hearing employees are often promoted over d/Deaf ppl who are equally or even better qualified, no matter how well educated with multiple degrees even. It is not a level playing field in the area of employment, when a d/Deaf person is fortunate enough to be working.

    Joseph made an excellent point: it is the national education system overall that is failing many children, both hearing and deaf. Student SAT scores and STAR ratings of public and state schools reflect that decline. One has to wonder why this phenomenon is occurring nationwide.


  12. Yes! We should be encouraging our talented deaf individuals into challenging fields, not submitting to the age-old "crab theory" that many of us are continually hounded by! Build others up and the better they will be able to pull others up with them, instead of tearing everyone down so everyone stays at the bottom of the heap!

    - Julie

  13. Well written!
    I would love to see research done on hard-of-hearing children and their educational skills and lack thereof.
    I can sympathize with the article. My mother was a HOH child, who was never allowed to learn ASL because she "wasn't deaf enough" and is now struggling as a totally Deaf adult. I was a HOH child who also never learned ASL or had any Deaf role models, because again, I "wasn't deaf enough". My child, who is the fourth generation of a Deaf/HOH was diagnosed with progressive hearing loss. The minute I began to advocate as a HOH parent of a Deaf child, I was told by her public schol district, that despite daily behavioral issues stemming from frustration over lack of communications/resources, that she "wasn't deaf enough". No more! She is Deaf and I am proud that she is Deaf. I am teaching her that Deaf people can have dreams and WILL achieve them. We may not talk, but we are NOT silent. For the first time in my family, we are signing "I Deaf" and I have a sense of homecoming...
    P.S. my same little girl, whose public scholl teacher thought she didn't know her ABCs, is now at a private schol for the Deaf and has just scored, as a kidnergarden pupil, in the third grade reading comp. level! We getting there!

  14. Jon: Your entire comment under the discussion section is all too true. I agree with you and the points you have raised. What's unfortunate is that those same points have been raised since the 19th century- problems with language acquisition; the feminization of deaf education; the quality and qualifications of educators for the deaf; economic opportunities; cannibalizing our deaf intellectuals based on identity politics; deaf people's dependence on welfare and charity; and so on forth. (My dissertation, actually, deals with this topic from 1880-1953). This has not changed in 130 years. What has? What improvements, if any, were there? Are we, as a people, better off relatively speaking than deaf people at the turn of the 20th century?

    This leads me to the final comment in your article: "Perhaps it’s too late to do much for our generation, but if we heed the numbers, future generations of deaf children can be spared our failures."
    Deaf leaders and intellectuals did heed "the numbers" and we have for more than a century yet countless generations of deaf people have fallen victim.
    This is all the same old song-and-dance routine we've conducted. Plenty of soap-boxing; laments on the quality of deaf education and economic opportunities; efforts like establishing the labor bureaus and the passage of ADA. Yet we're in the same rut.
    Now what? What next? What comes beyond heeding the numbers? Why has our prior activism and legislative successes yielded so little? Perhaps the problem is that we're not thinking outside the box in terms of solutions and the true roots of the issues you've presented here.

    Perhaps we should just look at this from a different angle and argue that historically speaking, we're actually doing pretty well but we just haven't kept up with social, cultural, and economic changes- instead of staying ahead, we're constantly playing catch-up and that leaves us with the perception that we're stuck in a perpetual decline. When I think about other underclasses throughout history; I see the same patterns, the same complaints, the same issues- and the problem isn't within- it's external.

    There are more questions than answers, naturally, but it is my hope that by understanding history, by understanding and heeding contemporary numbers, by looking to other underprivileged groups and their struggles/successes, our community activists can move forward and effect change. This, of course, begins with cooperation and setting aside petty identity politics which I think is perhaps the most important part of your message.