There are approximately 250 deaf and hard of hearing individuals who have completed graduate programs in social work in the United States. These professionals, many of whom are bilingual in American Sign Language (ASL) and English, work in a wide range of settings and with deaf and hard of hearing populations diverse on many levels including gender, age, race and ethnicity, educational experience, language and communication skill, presence of other disabilities, mental health, and so on. Deaf and hard of hearing professionals with social work degrees are elected politicians, clinicians, program managers, policymakers, researchers, case managers, social work educators, and authors working on all system levels nationally and internationally moving this emerging subspecialty forward to new heights.


Compatible with the social work and deaf community values of empowerment, self-determination, and social justice, these social workers are making tremendous contributions to enhanced quality of life for deaf and hard of hearing individuals, their families, organizations, and communities.

Although estimates of the number of deaf and hard of hearing people in the United States are difficult to determine, partly because there is no single definition of the terms deaf and hard of hearing, this ‘‘low incidence’’ population is often marginalized or completely ignored in the planning of social policies, services, and programs that meet their needs. Service providers and policymakers generally have little understanding of the complex language and communication needs of this population and the implications for program design and service delivery


Agents of social change

The growing number of deaf and hard of hearing individuals who are entering the social work profession face unique experiences that require them to be agents of social change. This change agent role is often focused on both their client population and themselves as members of the social work profession. Deaf and hard of hearing graduates of social work programs frequently face inordinate barriers to obtaining licensure, primarily because of difficulty passing licensure

Professionals who are deaf and hard of hearing want and need the same benefits from their professional organizations as hearing professionals. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibit discrimination against and require accessibility for people with disabilities in various sectors of society including employment, social services, education, health, and welfare services. The ADA protects people with disabilities in the private sector as well. Thus schools of social work, agencies, and professional organizations must address the accessibility needs of deaf and hard of hearing social workers and consumers.


In the profession of social work, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) supports professional development and professional standards for members, and promotes just social policies. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) oversees the accreditation of postsecondary social work education programs. The ASWB administers licensure and examinations for social workers throughout the United States. Advocacy efforts by deaf, hearing, and hard of hearing social workers have focused on each of these organizations over the past several years. Although there have been some advancements, such as the provision of sign language interpreters at the Annual Program Meeting of the CSWE, student representation on the board of the DC chapter of NASW, and collaboration on a national level with ASWB, much more remains to be accomplished. A model of collaboration between Gallaudet University’s Department of Social Work and the ASWB will illustrate one such ongoing effort.

Pathways to access: a model of collaboration

The broad success of the social work education programs identified earlier contributed to growing numbers of deaf and hard of hearing persons being trained to be social workers and a growth in culturally competent mental health and social service programs for deaf and hard of hearing people. Consequently there was a need for access to the major professional social work organizations.

On an individual basis, beginning in the late 1970s and later collectively through ASDSW, the advocacy efforts of deaf social workers focused on multiple purposes, including the following:

·         The provision of professional interpreters at national conferences and professional meetings.

·         Professional growth and access to continuing education.

·         Gaining a voice in professional organizations.

·         Full participation in the functions of the organizations contributing to operation and policies of the organizations and the profession.

·         Making recommendations for selection of conference presenters and themes.

·         Gaining recognition of deaf and hard of hearing peoples as a culturally diverse population.

·         Filling an ethical responsibility to enhance the ability of the social work profession to effectively serve deaf and hard of hearing consumers.

·         Preparing for and obtaining reasonable accommodations for professional licensing examinations.


Although the numbers of deaf and hard of hearing individuals with social work degrees entering this field of practice have increased, barriers to professional development beyond graduate school and participation in agency and professional functions continue to exist. Experiences similar to those of ‘‘Amanda’’ and ‘‘Serena’’ include professional isolation within and outside of their employing agencies, discrimination in continuing education opportunities, difficulty passing licensing examinations, lack of access to chapter activities and committee memberships, and discrimination in hiring practices.


The oppressive experiences of deaf professionals can be understood borrowing the conceptual framework (or the paradigm) of postmodern feminism such as that described by Sands and Nuccio (1992) and Dominelli (2002). For example, privileged and dichotomous ideas about the realities of deaf and hard of hearing people, the absence of egalitarianism, and the impact of language on power relations are evident within our profession. The fact that deaf and hard of hearing people are deserving of the same level of professional respect as other diverse groups and populations at risk often escapes the awareness of those with whom we interact. A recent incident involving a contribution to the professional literature exemplifies this.


Two pioneering social work educators who are deaf were pleased to receive an invitation to contribute an entry on social work practice with deaf and hard of hearing people to a prominent professional publication. Recognizing that our profession values the participation of members of diverse groups to scholarly publications, they wrote and submitted the article. Upon completion of the article and the copyediting process with the contracted publishing company the authors were satisfied with its contents. Several months later when the printed publication was disseminated, the authors discovered that the title of their article had been changed, without their knowledge or permission, to one that was disparaging to the population of deaf and hard of hearing people and that was completely out of context to the body and message of the article. The authors recognized that the publishing company was unaware of the oppressive impact of these unauthorized language changes, and the professional ramifications this presented for the authors, for other deaf and hard of hearing social workers, for their clients, and for the population as a whole. They wrote a letter to the editors requesting an apology and corrections. The editor replied that the corrections could not be made until the second printing.

Feminist theory frames the dynamics of the power relations in the preceding situation: the absence of egalitarianism, the privilege exercised by the publishing company in renaming the authors’ work, and the negative impact of language on a population at risk.

Successfully accessing professional organizations requires knowledge of and skill in building collaborative relationships. This process will involve finding common ground between the goals and mission of the professional organization and the goals and interests of deaf social workers relating to social justice and effective practice with a population at risk. The next section elaborates on approaches to building collaborative relationships.


Barriers to social work licensing examinations

Amanda’s friend from social work school, John, was also deaf. John struggled with mastering English most all of his life. He had positive evaluations in his field placement in a school for the deaf and related well with the students and families he saw on his caseload. He was offered a job upon graduation at this school, with the understanding that he would obtain his social work license within 6 months. He took a license preparation course and did fairly well. However, he missed passing the examination by two points. He took the exam again 6 months later and also failed by two points. He was ready to give up the profession he loved because he could not pass the exam and his employer by law could not keep him in a social work position.


This is a very real scenario faced by more and more deaf and hard of hearing social workers who enter the ranks of the profession. Recognizing this scenario as a common denominator for deaf and hard of hearing students and colleagues, a small group of social work educators from Gallaudet University, practitioners, and advocates initiated dialogue with the ASWB in the early 2000s. The goal was to educate ASWB about the difficulties that deaf and hard of hearing people have with standardized tests in general, and the social work licensing examination in particular. As part of this endeavor, the Department of Social Work and the National Task Force on Equity in Testing Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals hosted a luncheon meeting with representatives from the Washington, DC, and Maryland licensing boards to learn about the difficulties that deaf and hard of hearing candidates encounter with testing for social work licensure. Powerful testimonies were offered from colleagues whose lives and livelihoods were being directly impacted by this problem. Shortly thereafter, the ASWB Blue Ribbon Committee, an entity that has final say in how items are developed and other aspects of test structure and delivery, received an educational presentation on testing accommodations, structure, and test item writing from experts in this field. In addition to this initial dialogue with ASWB, a faculty member from the Department of Social Work at Gallaudet University became a test item writer for ASWB. These efforts led to changes in the test item writing manual, aiming to generate clearer, less ambiguous, and more accessible test items for all candidates, including deaf and hard of hearing test-takers. Additionally, the Department of Social Work at Gallaudet University began to offer a social work licensing examination preparation course open to professionals and students. Formative and summative evaluation of these efforts are needed to determine outcome and future directions.



We have attempted to portray the challenges and successes of professional social workers who are deaf or hard of hearing as they pave the way for full access to their professional organizations. Due to the relatively low incidence of deaf and hard of hearing individuals in the general population and the minute percentage of deaf and hard of hearing social workers, the needs of this population of professionals are routinely, if unintentionally, overlooked. Deaf and hard of hearing social workers will need to continue to educate their colleagues, their clients, and the profession on a day-to-day basis, and at the same time, hope that the profession meets them halfway in the pursuit of full inclusion to professional organizations.


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Cohen, C. (2000). Object relations theory: Cultural and social implications for psychotherapy with individuals who are deaf. Smith College Studies in Social Work, 71(1), 35–49.

Deaf, Hard of Hearing, & Hearing Social Workers Network (2001–2006). Washington, DC: Gallaudet University. Available at dhhhswweb.nsf

Journal of Social Work in Disability & Rehabilitation, 9:1–11, 2010