Will My Child Go To College,
Get A Job, and
Live Independently?


By Barbara Luetke,
Northwest School for the Hearing-Impaired

When my profoundly deaf daughter, Mary Pat, was two years old, I remember vividly the one question that was foremost in my mind: Would someone hire her as an employee,  allowing her to live independently? Studies available at the time painted a dismal picture of future employment and underemployment among deaf and hard of hearing adults.

A recent study involving a national sample of 510 young adults who are deaf or hard of hearing and living in the United States showed somewhat better news. One might not think that 510 deaf or hard of hearing young adults is a large sample. While deafness is the most common condition affecting babies at birth, it is also a low-incidence occurrence, with just two per thousand babies born with a hearing loss and two to three more children acquiring hearing loss during childhood. The study’s sample size is much larger than many of the research studies in deaf education, and is a very large sample compared to many studies of post-secondary youth. Curious about this study? With two deaf daughters who are at this age, so was I.

Description of the Post Secondary Study 2001-2009

In 2001, the U.S. Department of Education, in response to the paucity of information available regarding post-secondary young adults with special needs, funded a ten year study, called the National Longitudinal Transition Study. As the second study of its kind, it is known as the NLTS2.  Findings regarding the young adults were compared to the first study as well (NLTS).  As in the original study, NLTS2 included the post-secondary school outcomes of a nationally-representative sample of youth in 12 categories of special needs constructed to represent the entire population of students with disabilities in the United States. It included 510 young adults who were deaf or hard of hearing (d/hh). Researchers collected data beginning in 2001, and continued sampling every two years through 2009. The researchers used a questionnaire that was completed by either the adults themselves or their parents or guardians. Answers to survey questions were subjected to a complex series of weightings such that they would represent the various disability categories proportionately in the nation (Wagner et al., 2006a).

General demographic data of the NLTS2 national study, most recently reported by Newman et al. (2009) are as follows: Participants who were d/hh (this is the “n” of the study, or “n = 510”) were between the ages of 21 and 24 years; the mean age was 23.5 years. Of those, 51.3% were male and 48.7% female. Unaided hearing acuity was reported to be 65% with profound loss; 28% with moderate loss; and 7% with mild loss. Because so many students use hearing aids or cochlear implants, and use FM systems at school, providing information about functional hearing with equipment might have been useful to parents. In any case, we can infer from this description that participants ranged from those who were deaf to those who had some residual hearing with amplification.

Academic outcomes for survey respondents were as follows:

  • Percentage of high school graduates: 93.1%;
  • Post-secondary academic program enrollment and attendance: 66.5%.
  • Receipt of a certificate or degree from a post-secondary institution: 29.7%.
  • 63% of the participants said they were employed, and averaged 34 hours per week of work.
  • 61% of the sample utilized the services of a care or service coordinator.
  • 22.9% were receiving SSI.
  • 57.4% of young adults in the study reporting living at home.
  • 79% held a permit or driver’s license.
  • 63% had voted.

Academic levels achieved in the national study were taken by report of the young adult or his or her parents. To rate reading and math abilities, respondents could choose ratings from above average to 4.9 grade levels behind the average. According to Newman, et al. (2009), reading levels among the population of 510 d/hh adults were as follows:


  • 19% of the participants were above to less than one grade level behind in reading;
  • 13% were one to 2.9 grade levels behind the average in reading
  • Almost 35% were three to 4.9 grade levels behind in reading.
  • 33% were five or more grade levels behind in reading.


  • 22% were above to less than one grade level behind in math.
  • Almost 18% were behind one to 2.9 grade levels in math,
  • 38% were three to 4.9 grade levels behind in math (the largest category).
  • 23% reported they were behind five or more grade levels in math.  

The data, compared by some of the background factors, showed that older respondents were significantly farther behind than younger, males were farther behind than females, participants from racial/ethnic groups were farther behind than white young adults, and young adults using a language at home other than English were farther behind than those from English-speaking homes.

Comparing a Program to the National Data

A school for children who are d/hh, Northwest School for Hearing-Impaired Children, (NWSFHIC) was interested in comparing outcomes of their students with the national study and with other post-secondary young adults in the state of Washington. NWSFHIC enrolls about 50 students who are d/hh from preschool through eighth grade, and uses curriculum that has been developed for hearing students (for example, the Harcourt Literacy Series) and deaf and hard of hearing students. Twenty school districts in five counties contract with the school to appropriately serve children who are d/hh. School administrators at NWSFHIC must adhere to all the rules and regulations of a public school and the program serves a culturally diverse student body. Almost a third of the children come from Spanish-speaking homes and another six children have been adopted from China. Everyone at NSWFHIC speaks and signs Signing Exact English, teachers are observed monthly by administrators, and SEE is practiced and discussed at monthly staff meetings (i.e., SEE by Gustason, Pfetzing & Zawolkow, 1972; Gustason & Zawolkow, 1993). A survey was created and sent to former students who had attended the school for at least four years to gather comparison data with the national sample. Young adults were given six months to answer via email.

A third study done in Washington was authored by Johnson, Iwaszuk, Johnston, Ostergren, Smith-Henry, and Edgar in 2011. They conducted a state-wide study regarding young adults with one of 13 special needs who had exited high school and lived in the state of Washington. One group of young adults included in the study was d/hh. Potential participants had been identified from a state database of students with disabilities enrolled in state high schools who had received special education services and answered questions asked in telephone interviews by district staff. Data were analyzed by the Center for Change in Transition Services a year after the students exit high school. This number represents between 73% and 79% of all possible young adults in the state who were d/hh (or their parents) interviewed from 2000 to 2008.  Johnson et al. did not report the demographic information regarding age, degree of hearing loss, parent involvement, or social economic status of survey respondents. The authors presented information by percentages in table form according to various comparisons (ex. Percent of High School Graduates in College by Disability).  Three questions were comparable to the national study and are included in the comparison:

  1. Did you graduate from high school?
  2. Have you attended vocational training, two year community college, or college/university?
  3. Are you employed? For the employment question, respondents were asked once per year during the length of the study about employment during the last six months.

The results of that comparison are shown in the tables below.

Table 1 - Comparison of post-secondary outcomes:

National, State of WA, and NWSFHIC
responses from deaf or hard of hearing
students or their parents

Educational Achievement

NLTS2 (National study)

State of WA study

NWSFHIC (one school’s data)

% graduating from high school




% attending post- secondary school




% receiving degrees or certificates





% employment for post-secondary students no longer in school




average number of hours worked per week





% having a case manager




% living with parents




% having a drivers license




% registered to vote




On a positive note, a high rate of students who were d/hh had graduated high school from all three studies.  For comparison purposes, the graduation rates for all United States high school students is 66%, from July 2009 data. In addition, about two-thirds of d/hh students had begun college. Unfortunately, only about 30% of the students in the national sample had obtained a degree, but it is possible that some in the study were still making progress toward a degree. Certainly, the post-secondary experience for any college student can sometimes be stretched beyond the typical four or five years. I know this is the case with my youngest daughter, Marcy, who is deaf, and was adopted at four years of age, will graduate this May after six years of undergraduate study. Yet, it is encouraging that 88% of the alumni from NWSFHIC had attended college and about two-thirds had earned a two or four year degree.

Admittedly, there are flaws in the comparison of data that is reported on a descriptive basis by the young adults themselves or their families, versus collecting data from objective sources. In addition, young adults attending a school that uses a particular communication method may have a better than average match of learning style and communication between students and the program offering, as well as teachers who support a particular approach, which might logically lead to higher achievement. The relationship between the use of speech and SEE at NWSFHIC and reading comprehension is currently being studied. Background information collected for this current work allows for the comparison of student outcomes for those who had access to early intervention, and consideration of socio-economic status, parent education, the language used at home, the communication used at home, the students’ self-esteem, and so forth, and has found that sometimes these factors contribute to better academic achievement. Some of these factors we can influence as parents and some we cannot. Still, the national, state, and NWSFHIC school data is encouraging. 

Reading and Math Abilities

 Using standardized achievement tests, reading and math abilities for both the national sample and the NWSFHIC school participants were averaged. The national data is based on averaged responses as reported in Newman et al. (2009); responses from the NWSFHIC participants are also averaged. The difference between the national sample and NWSFHIC were significant.



Grade level





Above to less Than 1 level Behind





1 to 2.9 grade Levels behind





3 to 4.9 grade Levels behind





5 or more grade Levels behind





Good News After High School

Based on this study, we can share with parents that there is a very good chance that a son or daughter who is deaf or hard of hearing will graduate from high school and find employment. In the national sample of deaf or hard of hearing young adults, almost two-thirds of the deaf young adults did work, with an average employment of 34 hours a week. For the NWSFHIC alumni, about 85% of students had found a job, and the majority worked almost full time. It is interesting to note that in the national sample, more deaf or hard of hearing students, or blind/visually impaired students, identified themselves to college offices for equal access compared to students in any other category. That self-identification is critical to the process of attaining accommodations that will level the playing field in a classroom.

In the national sample, a little more than half of young adults still lived at home after high school. Only about 22% of NWSFHIC high school graduates still lived at home. In recent national statistics based on the typical population, 43-50% of young adults in their early twenties still lived at home, so this may not be as instructive a measure as before 1970, when young adults tended to move out much more quickly.

Some factors parents can control and some they simply cannot. Factors found to be key to successful transition from high school into young adulthood by the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET), a clearing house sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, were documented by NWSFHIC administrators as listed below. Parents may be able to advocate that these factors be included in school programming for their middle and high school students:

  • expectation of independent and mature behavior
  • opportunities to make decisions and be empowered
  • experiences with general education curriculum and hearing peers for one or more periods of school a day
  • opportunities for parent participation and involvement at school
  • linkages built to relevant organizations (such as Hands & Voices), agencies and committees associated with deafness
  • qualified, certified teachers and experienced assistants
  • assessed academic abilities that are used to plan lessons
  • assessed English skills with goals and objectives in the areas of meaning (vocabulary and phrases) and form (grammar). Convertino et al. (2009) found that English language abilities were “clearly the most important predictor” of high performance on college entrance measures when students are d/hh (p. 337).

Parents can be encouraged to see that that whether their child is newly identified or somewhere further along their educational path, he or she can indeed not only obtain advanced training after high school, but earn a college degree, enter the work world and find meaningful employment, and eventually live independently. What seems to be the take away lesson here is that students who are successful have had full access to the school curriculum, were expected to read and write English as well as their hearing peers, and were prepared for the world of work including advocacy skills and understanding the ADA law and services available, along with reaching for those high educational goals. Although an independent life is difficult to describe, most of the participants in the present studies had completed college, were married, worked, owned a driver’s license, were registered to vote, and (is it possible?) no longer lived with their parents.

Editor’s note: The author is the mother of four daughters, all of whom are now adults, and one of her youngest daughters just began full time work out of college. She is also a member of the Washington Hands & Voices board. An article about this research is pending publication in the summer 2012 issue of the American Annals of the Deaf. Readers may contact the author at b.luetke@northwestschool.com for more information.


Convertino, C., Marshark, M., Sapere, P., Sarcher, T., & Zupan, M. (2009). Predicting academic success among deaf college students. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 12(3), 324-343.

Newman, L., Wagner, M., Cameto, R., & Knokey, A. (2009).  The post-high school outcomes of youth with disabilities up to 4 years after high school: A report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2).  Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.  Retrieved from www.nlts2.org/reports/2009_04/nlts2_report_2009_04_complete.pdf.

Wagner and her colleagues (2005a; 2005b; 2006a; 2006b)

Wagner, M., Newman, L., Cameto, R., & Levine, P. (2005a). Changes over time in the early postschool outcomes of youth with disabilities: A report of findings from the National Longitudinal Transition Study (NLTS) and the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS-2). Menlo Park, CA:  SRI International.

Wagner, M., Newman, L., Cameto, R., & Levine, P. (2006a). The academic achievement and functional performance of youth with disabilities: A report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.             

Wagner, M., Newman, L., Cameto, R., Garza, N., & Levine, P. (2005b). After high school: A

First look at the postschool experiences of youth with disabilities: A report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

Wagner, M., Newman, L., Cameto, R., Levine, P., & Garza, N. (2006b). An overview of findings from Wave 2 of the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

Johnson, Iwaszuk, Johnston, Ostergren, Smith-Henry, and Edgar in 2011, NWSFHIC study reference

National dropout rate: http://www.all4ed.org/publication_material/understanding_HSgradrates


Table of available demographics of the three groups


National Sample

WA State Sample


Who was represented by the subjects in the study?

Represented were young adults with hearing loss across the country

Represented were 73% and 79% young adults with hearing loss in Washington

Represented  were alumni from 20 school districts located around a large city in the NW of the U.S.

Who completed the survey questions?

Researchers used a questionnaire that was completed by either the youths themselves or their parents/guardians.   

Researchers used a questionnaire that was completed by either the youths themselves or their parents/ guardians.

Researchers used a questionnaire that was completed by the youths themselves.



Participants were between the ages of 21 and 24 years; the mean age was 23.5 years.

They had graduated high school.

Participants were between 17- and 35- years old; the mean age was 25.67 for comparison purposes.


Of those, 51.3% were male and 48.7% female.

No demographic information was provided. 

Participants were 46% male and 54% female. 

Hearing Ability

Unaided hearing acuity was reported to be 65% with profound loss; 28% with moderate loss; and 7% with mild loss.

No demographic information was provided. 

Unaided hearing acuity was reported to be 63% a severe to profound  loss, 28% had a moderate loss, and 9% had a mild loss. 

Marriage status

About 10% were married. 

No demographic information was provided. 

About 22% were married. 


Copyright 2014 Hands & Voices   ::   Privacy Policy   ::   Credits