Transforming Your Institution: The How and Why

Deaf people often encounter barriers in education, training, and employment settings. A systems perspective can help reduce or eliminate these barriers by addressing underlying root causes of problems to create solutions that will make a lasting impact and create sustainable solutions.

A systems transformation framework asks us to change our perspective:

focusing on isolated issues → improving overall system coherence

working in silos → strengthening relationships

thinking deaf people are the problem → reframing attitudes and eliminating barriers


Why is System Transformation Needed?

Lower educational attainment and employment rates among deaf people show us problems with the system, not with deaf people. There are many underlying root causes of these disparities – including limited access to language and communication, reduced social opportunities, negative attitudes and biases, and the lack of qualified and experienced professionals. For more, check out our site assessment.

Transforming Systems to Achieve Equity for Deaf People

This free and quick online module introduces systems theory as a way to address structural inequities, and provides tips for applying this perspective to your context.

Check Out Our Site Assessment

This site assessment asks you questions about your organization, agency, or school to identify opportunities for growth. Get a customized report with suggestions for next steps.

Root Causes & Key Impact Areas

Research suggests five key impact areas that community members, agencies, schools, and organizations can focus on to make the most impact on deaf people’s lives in your area: designing accessible environments, promoting high expectations for success, collecting and using data for decision-making, leveraging community resources, and developing collaborative and integrated systems.

Read Our Root Cause Analysis

This research summary outlines research and data related to four root causes that negatively affect postsecondary outcomes for deaf people.

Discovering System Barriers and Exploring the WHY

This free and quick online module introduces root cause analysis as a way to identify and address underlying challenges that prevent deaf people from reaching their goals.

Read About Key Impact Areas

This research includes a review of literature and practices that address root causes of challenges to postsecondary attainment, and NDC has identified five key impact areas.

Contact us today to get started with the work of addressing system barriers and improving experiences for deaf people.

Want to Nerd Out About System Transformation Research?
Keep Reading!

Systems theory recognizes that a focus on individual activities or events is not enough to sustain change over longer periods of time, or address deeply embedded issues like structural inequities (Burke, 2017; Reid et al., 2019). Systems transformation research asks us to place greater attention to building relationships and addressing attitudes and biases (Kania et al., 2018; Valdez et al., 2020). After all, systems are made up of people. Achieving sustainable system transformation is more likely when addressing three levels of system change: explicit, semi-explicit, and implicit (Kania et al., 2018), which we conceptualize in our work as structures, relationships, and attitudes. Our system transformation model focuses on building system coherence, increasing relational capacity, and strengthening an equity mindset.

System coherence involves policies (state, organizational, and school-level policies, priorities, and regulations), practices (procedures, guidelines, habits, and activities), and resource flows (allocation and distribution of people, knowledge, money, and information) (Kania et al., 2018). Coherence in policies, practices, and resource flows leads to clarity for community members and better use of resources, increasing equity in services for disabled students (Kozleski et al., 2020).

To explore system coherence in your organization, consider the following questions: 

  • Has leadership provided tangible assets such as time, money, and support towards a commitment to organizational improvement for deaf people?
  • Have systemic barriers for deaf people within your organization been identified?
  • Are communication and coordination of services within your organization clear and consistent?
  • Are practices and approaches used with deaf people high quality, culturally responsive, person centered, avoid deficit thinking, and supported by research?

To build system coherence, explore the following resources:

Relational capacity recognizes the importance of communication, relationships, and power dynamics as a semi-explicit component of systems transformation (Kania et al., 2018). Continuous improvement approaches are more effective with an intentional focus on developing relational capacity, specifically mutual trust, consistency, and a commitment to communication (Shearer, 2018).

To explore relational capacity in your organization, consider the following questions:

  • Does your organization actively collaborate with other organizations to support outcomes for deaf people?
  • Are deaf people involved in decision making and program implementation? 
  • Are feedback from community members consistently collected and used to improve programs and services?
  • Is organizational information clear, accessible, and communicated consistently with community members?

To increase relational capacity, explore the following resources: 

An equity mindset sees inequitable outcomes as a “problem of practice rather than a problem with students,” emphasizing institutional responsibility to eliminate educational and employment disparities for marginalized students (Malcom-Piqueux & Bensimon, 2017, p. 6). While attitudes, expectations, and biases may be the least explicit component of system transformation, they may be the missing element in ensuring system transformation continues beyond one time period or activity (Kania et al., 2018).

To explore an equity mindset in your organization, consider the following questions: 

  • Has leadership shown a commitment to improving outcomes for deaf people of color and those who are deafdisabled, deafblind, and/or LGBTQIA+?
  • Are professional development opportunities related to equity available and sustained over time?
  • Is organizational data used to identify barriers and improve equity in distribution of resources and services for deaf people?
  • Do leadership and personnel believe that systems need to be changed, not deaf people?

To strengthen an equity mindset, explore the following resources: 

NDC is Here to Help!

For personalized support or questions, please reach out to our Help Team by emailing us at [email protected].


Palmer, J. L., Bloom, C. L., Kinast, L., & Ivanko, T. (2023). Access, Belonging, and Affirmation: Deaf Postsecondary Access and Inclusion Scale, 2022–2023. National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes, The University of Texas at Austin.

Kania, J., Kramer, M., & Senge, P. (2018). The Water of Systems Change.

Kozleski, E. B., Stepaniuk, I., & Proffitt, W. (2020). Leading through a critical lens: The application of DisCrit in framing, implementing and improving equity driven, educational systems for all students. Journal of Educational Administration, 58(5), 489–505.

Malcom-Piqueux, L., & Bensimon, E. M. (2017). Taking equity-minded action to close equity gaps. Peer Review, 19(2), 5–8.

Shearer, K. (2018). Creating Systems of Continuous Improvement: A Phenomenological Study of California Districts Engaged in Transforming into Learning Organizations [Doctoral Dissertation, Brandman University].

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