Deafness is defined as the inability to comprehend spoken language. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, defines deafness as “a hearing impairment that is so severe that the child is impaired in processing linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification.” Hard of hearing, however, is defined as a mild to moderate hearing loss that can be improved through the use of amplification devices. Whether deaf or hard of hearing, students with this disability are entitled to a free and appropriate public education, or FAPE. In order for schools to provide FAPE, there are various supports, services and educational placement options for students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Educational environment options including mainstream and inclusion placements involve educating a deaf or hard of hearing student alongside hearing students. In an inclusion program, a deaf or hard of hearing student attends all classes with hearing students, whereas mainstreamed students typically attend some special classes in addition to classes with hearing students. Placement is always determined by the Individualized Education Plan or IEP. This document is developed and implemented by a team of educators including the special education teacher, general education teacher and any other service providers who interact with the student.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

IDEA mandates that “to the maximum extent appropriate” every child with disabilities be educated with children without disabilities, and that special classes or separate schooling occur only when this cannot be accomplished satisfactorily. The National Association of the Deaf, in their “Position Statement on Inclusion,” argues that this does not, however, require that students be placed only in classrooms with hearing students, and expresses concerns about “full-inclusionists” who “call for the elimination of special schools and programs for all students with disabilities.”

The National Association of the Deaf supports the use of American Sign Language for deaf children early in their development. Research supports the idea that even profoundly deaf children will benefit from the visual representation of language. There is a greater risk of delayed language development when children are not exposed to language in visual form.


Many mainstreamed students spend most of their school day in classes with hearing students, however, their home classroom is a special education class. Mainstreamed students are often expected to keep up in classes with hearing students without additional resources. However, when students are educated in a specialized classroom, they will receive any and all of the services as outlined in the IEP. These may include an interpreter, the use of sign language, or hearing devices. Because special instructors or interpreters do not accompany students, mainstreamed deaf or hard of hearing students can interact more directly with hearing students. However, depending on the individual student’s difficulty communicating with his or her hearing peers, the lack of an interpreter can increase isolation. It is important for educators to continually monitor a student's placement to ensure they are making adequate progress both academically and socially. If not, changes may need to be made. Any changes to placement or services requires a new IEP.


Deaf or hard of hearing students in inclusion programs attend classes with hearing students. A variety of additional services and resources may be involved in inclusion – interpreters, note takers, teacher aides, teachers of students who are deaf, and consultants. Disadvantages of inclusion include limited opportunities for direct instruction and communication, since the student interacts with teachers and peers primarily through an interpreter. In addition, there may not be enough qualified interpreters or support staff in a local school district to adequately support inclusion.


When deciding what placement decision is best for their student, parents and caretakers should first consider the student’s academic, social and communication needs: the student’s academic level, what form of communication he or she best uses to learn, what opportunities for interaction with peers and role models best suit the student, and what the student’s preferred method of communication is for social interactions.

When considering mainstreaming or inclusion for their student, parents or caregivers should also consider the level of support for the student, including access to TTYs, closed-captioning services, note takers and other assistance devices, and whether the school includes other deaf students of similar age. Placement options should always be a collaborative decision with input from all stakeholders to determine where the student will be most successful.

It is important for families to be well-versed in the laws that support students with disabilities. Often, parents are the number one advocate for their child. There are typically many local resources available to families to help assist in this type of advocacy work. It certainly may be a scary or daunting task, but with the right supports, families can successfully partner with schools to ensure to the best possible outcomes for students. Remember, the laws are there for a reason and should be applied appropriately for students. Also, partnership is key! Establishing positive relationship with school personnel goes a long way to ensuring a student's needs are appropriately met.

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