Impact Feature Issue on Educating K-12 English Language Learners with Disabilities

Issues in the Education of Deaf and Hard of Hearing K-12 English Language Learners


Barbara Gerner de García is a Professor in the Department of Education at Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C. She may be reached at or 202/651-5207

According to the Gallaudet Research Institute, nationwide 23% of deaf and hard of hearing K-12 students are categorized as English language learners (ELLs) under No Child Left Behind, and over 30% are Latino (Gallaudet Research Institute, 2011). However, deaf and hard of hearing ELLs continue to be largely invisible, with few advocates, in our educational system. Given the large numbers of deaf and hard of hearing ELLs, the time is ripe for a national response.

For over 25 years, as an urban public school teacher, university professor, and researcher, I have focused on Latino deaf and hard of hearing students. Many issues that impact these students also affect other immigrant deaf students. For example, many meet the Title III* definition of ELLs:

...not born in the United States, and/or whose native language is other than English, and lack of English proficiency is a barrier to learning in classrooms where the instruction is in English, and to meeting state assessment levels of proficiency. (U.S. Department of Education, 2013)

They are therefore ELLs who are deaf and hard of hearing. They need appropriate instruction by teachers trained to work with deaf and hard of hearing students to meet their English learning needs, and specialized services from other professionals such as audiologists and school psychologists. Another issue is that their parents commonly experience language barriers in trying to access services, as well as a lack of culturally-appropriate services. In some school districts, services provided to ELLs who are deaf and hard of hearing are a result of lawsuits in which the school district agreed to take certain actions to remediate the situation, without admitting fault. Outside of these jurisdictions, however, there are few special services for K-12 ELLs who are deaf and hard of hearing.

In preparing this article, I contacted schools with large numbers of deaf and hard of hearing students from immigrant families to ask what they were currently doing to meet the needs of these students, and to identify issues. I learned that some schools provide immersion American Sign Language (ASL) classes, and some provide English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) or transition programs to newly arrived students. Others provide accommodation during school-wide testing by providing foreign language translators for students who understand spoken language. I also have had contact with many classroom teachers in online and face-to-face courses who teach ELLs who are deaf and hard of hearing, and they report having few resources and limited support. There is a limited research and documented practice to provide guidance for classroom teachers, and national conferences on deaf education and teacher preparation in the field consistently neglect the topic.

The categorization of deaf and hard of hearing ELLs is challenging. For example, bilingual deaf education programs that use American Sign Language and English consider their deaf and hard of hearing students to be English language learners whose first language is ASL. However most of these students do not meet Title III definitions of ELLs, which are tied to national origin. In early 2011, the U.S. Department of Education, in a letter to Title III directors, clarified that, in general, deaf and hard of hearing students cannot be considered ELLs (or limited English proficient) simply due to their reliance on ASL for communication, but those deaf and hard of hearing children “who have a language other than English as a native language” would be ELLs.

Due to a shortage of bilingual and multilingual professionals to assess the language skills of immigrant deaf and hard of hearing students, it is difficult to determine a student’s native or dominant language and their level of language development. Under-schooled immigrant deaf and hard of hearing students may not have any well-developed language. Even those immigrant deaf students who come with knowledge of a sign language other than ASL may be labeled as “having no language” (Gerner de Garcia, 2012). When a new student is seen as “language-less”, he or she may be placed in a class for deaf students with additional disabilities, and have even less language stimulation. More aware educators may work in collaboration with local immigrant deaf adults or trilingual sign language interpreters who may know the same sign language (for example Mexican Sign Language, or LSM), to gauge the new arrival’s language development.

Low test scores continue to plague schools and programs for deaf students. Under No Child Left Behind, the majority of schools for the deaf do not meet federal requirements for demonstrating the academic progress of all students (Cawthorn, 2011). A few schools for the deaf provide special programming for ELLs who are deaf and hard of hearing, but many don’t. While there is national data on the demographics of K-12 deaf students (Gallaudet Research Institute, 2011), these data are not separated out in a way that tells us how deaf ELL students are doing in regular public schools or how they are being served. Despite the dramatic increase in the numbers of deaf and hard of hearing K-12 students who are ELLs, a trend that has been noted since the 1970s, we have not responded with changes in teacher education, special programming, or services for families (Gerner de García, Cobb-Morocco, & Mata-Aguilar, 2006).

What are some immediate steps that we can take to address these issues for deaf and hard of hearing ELLs? One of the first is development of an online portal for teachers of deaf immigrant students that can serve as a place of support for teachers. This online community, which I am developing with a colleague at Texas Christian University, will link teachers, many of whom work in rural areas and in public schools, with others working with ELL deaf students. We hope to have it ready in the fall of 2013. Concurrent with this effort, I plan to conduct a nationwide study of teachers of ELL deaf and hard of hearing students, a collaborative effort with researchers in two other universities. This nationwide needs assessment will also provide empirical data to help identify potential sites for a follow-up study of teachers’ strategies for educating deaf ELL students. By learning about teachers’ challenges, we hope to create awareness of the growing deaf ELL population, and identify and disseminate strategies that teachers are developing to work with these students. These efforts can help raise awareness of these students, and support the teachers and other service providers working with them.

* Title III in Part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act

  • Cawthorn, S. W. (2011). Education of deaf and hard of hearing students and accountability reform: Issues for the future. American Annals of the Deaf, 156(4), 424–430.

  • Gallaudet Researc Institute. (2011). Regional and national summary report of data from the 2009-10 Annual Survey of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children and Youth. Washington D.C.: Gallaudet Research Institute, Galludette University.

  • Gerner de García, B. A. (2012). Creating language in a vacuum: Deaf children as creative communicators. In A. L. Yeung, C. F. K. Lee, & E. L. Brown (Eds.), Communication and language, vol. 7. International advances in education: Global initiatives for equity and social justice. Charlotte, N.C.: Information Age.

  • Gerner de García, B. A., Cobb-Morocco, C., & Mata-Aguilar, C. (2006). Literacy for Latino deaf and hard of hearing English language learners: Building the knowledge base. Final report. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs and Office of English Language Acquisition.

  • U.S. Department of Education. (2013). Title III Part A programs. Retrieved from