Root Causes of Gaps in Postsecondary Outcomes of Deaf Individuals

A review of current postsecondary outcomes for deaf1 people may seem disheartening, with significant educational attainment and employment gaps between deaf and hearing people. Across the nation, only 48% of deaf people are employed, compared to 72% of hearing people2. Furthermore, only 18% of deaf people receive bachelor’s degrees, compared to 33% of hearing people3, which is a critical concern given that employment rates for deaf people increase from 28% for those without a high school diploma to 74% for those with a terminal degree2These visible outcomes are the result of deeper, underlying factors that may not always be immediately visible but play a significant role in the level of postsecondary achievement of deaf people. Deafness in and of itself does not directly cause the present gaps in achievement, but it is related to other complex factors that may have a more direct impact on achievement gaps. Those complex factors, or what we refer to as root causes, are pervasive across all levels of the system and inhibit deaf people from reaching their full potential.

A root cause analysis is a systematic approach to uncovering and addressing the causes of a condition or problem, not just the symptoms. Conducting a root cause analysis is useful because it (a) dissolves problems, not symptoms; (b) reduces wasted effort; (c) improves use of resources; (d) enhances discussion and reflection; and (e) justifies strategy selection5.

Root Causes of Gaps in Postsecondary Outcomes

Limited Access to Language and Communication

Regardless of their communication modality, deaf people of all ages often experience reduced access to language and communication at home, at school, in the community, and in the workplace6. Deaf people increasingly enroll in a broad range of educational and training programs across the United States, yet most of those who use sign language do not have access to direct communication. Even those who rely on spoken language and auditory channels, such as residual hearing or auditory technologies, face gaps in comprehension7 and their long-term success rate is highly variable8.

Reduced access to language and communication has a significant negative impact on the well-being of deaf people. On the other hand, full access to the richness and complexity of language and a range of communication models can contribute to increased readiness for postsecondary environments for deaf people9

Reduced Social Opportunities

Reduced access to a rich social environment has a negative impact on self-concept and autonomy, and it results in fewer opportunities to build networks that are critical for future success10.

Barriers to communication can lead to significant struggles in socioemotional development for deaf people11,12. Loneliness, isolation, and lack of access to social opportunities may have a significant impact on well-being and academic achievement13,14. Consistent and equitable access to a range of social opportunities is an important contributor to positive youth development15,16,17.

Negative Attitudes and Biases

High expectations are critical to the support of successful postsecondary outcomes for deaf people. In contrast, negative attitudes and “the tyranny of low expectations” can serve as persistent barriers to advancement in school and the workplace. Deaf people who internalize negative biases about deafness are less resilient to stress and adversity18. As with many marginalized communities, deaf people have a long history of underrepresentation in spheres of influence.

The impact of this underrepresentation is particularly acute when the decisions being made have a significant impact on those within the deaf community19. Professionals and parents who have optimistic expectations for deaf people are crucial contributors to the postsecondary achievements of deaf youth20,21.

Lack of Qualified and Experienced Professionals
An insufficient number of professionals have the qualifications and experience to work with deaf people and facilitate strong postsecondary outcomes. As teacher training programs in deaf education continue to close down, the number of professionals with specific training in pedagogy for deaf people declines. This issue manifests in school settings, where only 60% of educational interpreters have adequate interpreting skills, according to one study22. Financial constraints also affect resource availability, with the average vocational rehabilitation counselor now serving 154 deaf applicants23. There is rarely a one-size-fits-all approach to supports and services for the deaf population, which is more heterogeneous than the hearing population. Experienced professionals who understand the range of communication preferences, co-occurring disabilities, family contexts, and educational experiences of deaf people are critical to effective, student-centered interventions and supports.

Root Causes in Your Context

Postsecondary outcome gaps between deaf and hearing people are symptoms of deeper problems that affect all levels of the system. To narrow those gaps, a systems change perspective that addresses root causes is necessary. Band-aid solutions address the symptoms but do not facilitate the longer term, broader systems change that is needed to increase the postsecondary achievement of deaf people in a sustainable manner24. Understanding how root causes come into play in your context contributes to a more nuanced understanding of the challenges faced by deaf people and helps prioritize and allocate limited resources.

To learn more about this information, and to view the resources used in this report, please download the report here.


Discovering System Barriers and Exploring the WHY

This is a one-hour self-paced learning module that helps you explore factors that influence postsecondary outcomes for people who are deaf. Understanding root causes is an important step for moving beyond temporary solutions to address systemic causes of educational inequities for deaf people.


  1. NDC uses the term deaf in an all-inclusive manner to include people who identify as Deaf, deaf, deafblind, deafdisabled, hard of hearing, late-deafened, and hearing impaired. NDC recognizes that for many individuals, identity is fluid and can change over time or with setting. NDC has chosen to use one term, deaf, with the goal of recognizing experiences that are shared by individuals from diverse deaf communities while also honoring their differences.
  2. Bagian, J. P., Gosbee, J., Lee, C. Z., Williams, L., McKnight, S. D., & Mannos, D. M. (2002). The veteran’s affairs root-cause analysis system in action. The Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety, 28(10), 531–545.
  3. Cawthon, S., Garberoglio, C. L., Caemmerer, J. M., Bond, M., & Wendel, E. (2015). Effects of parent expectations and parent involvement on postschool outcomes for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. Exceptionality, 23(2), 73–99.
  4. Cawthon, S., & Garberoglio, C. L. (2018, April). Change through dialog: Working together to improve education and employment outcomes for deaf individuals. Presented at National Summit on Educational Equity, Arlington, VA.
  5. Eccles, J. S., Barber, B. L., Stone, M., & Hunt, J. (2003). Extracurricular activities and adolescent development. Journal of Social Issues, 59(4), 865–889.
  6. Feldman, F. A., & Matjasko, J. L. (2012). Recent advances in research on school-based extracurricular activities and adolescent development. Developmental Review, 32(1), 1–48.
  7. Garberoglio, C. L., Cawthon, S., & Bond, M. (2016). Deaf people and employment in the United States: 2016. Washington, DC: National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes.
  8. Garberoglio, C. L., Cawthon, S., & Sales, A. (2017). Deaf people and educational attainment in the United States: 2017. Washington, DC: National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes.
  9. Hall, W. C., Levin, L. L., & Anderson, M. L. (2017). Language deprivation syndrome: A possible neurodevelopmental disorder with sociocultural origins. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 52(6), 761–776.
  10. Hauser, P. C., Listman, J. D., Kurz, K. B., & Contreras, J. (2014, April). Self-perception as disabled is a resilience risk-factor: Case of internalized audism. Paper presented at the Association of Psychological Science, San Francisco, CA.
  11. Hillburn, S., Marini, I., & Slate, J. R. (1997). Self-esteem among deaf versus hearing children with deaf versus hearing parents. Journal of the American Deafness and Rehabilitation Association, 30, 9–12. 
  12. Honeycutt, T., Thompkins, A., Bardos, M., & Stern, S. (2013). State differences in the vocational rehabilitation experiences of transition-age youth with disabilities. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research.
  13. Hopper, M. J. (2011). Positioned as bystanders: Deaf students’ experiences and perceptions of informal learning phenomena (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from UR Research at The University of Rochester. (AS38.628)
  14. Hyde, M., Punch, R., Power, D., Hartley, J., Neale, J., & Brennan, L. (2009). The experiences of deaf and hard of hearing students at a Queensland university: 1985–2005. Higher Education Research & Development, 28(1), 85–98.
  15. Listman, J., Rogers, K., & Hauser, P. (2011). Community cultural wealth and deaf adolescents’ resilience. In D. Zand & K. Pierce (Eds.), Resilience in deaf children: Adaptation through emerging adulthood (pp. 279–297). New York, NY: Springer.
  16. Oliva, G. A. (2004). Alone in the mainstream: A deaf woman remembers public school. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University.
  17. Peterson, N. R., Pisoni, D. B., & Miyamoto, R. T. (2010). Cochlear implants and spoken language processing abilities: Review and assessment of the literature. Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience, 28(2), 237–250.
  18. Preuss, P. (2003). A school leader’s guide to root cause analysis. New York, NY: Routledge.
  19. Schick, B., Williams, K., & Kupermintz, H. (2006). Look who’s being left behind: Educational interpreters and access to education for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 11(1), 3–20.
  20. Simms, L., & Thumann, H. (2009). Minority education and identity: Who decides for us, the deaf people? In W. Ayers, T. Quinn, & D. Stovall (Eds.), The handbook of social justice in education (pp. 191–208). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  21. Smith, D. H. (2013). Deaf adults: Retrospective narratives of school experiences and teacher expectations. Disability & Society, 28(5), 674–686.
  22. Smith, S. R., & Chin, N. P. (2012). Social determinants of health in deaf communities. In J. Maddock (Ed.), Public health: Social and behavioral health (pp. 449–460). Retrieved from
  23. Troutman, K. P., & Dufur, M. J. (2007). From high school jocks to college grads: Assessing the long-term effects of high school sport participation on females’ educational attainment. Youth & Society, 38(4), 443–462.

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