The issue

Why is there such a high rate of functional illiteracy in the Deaf community, and what can be done about it?

Our position

The high rate of functional illiteracy is not a result of deafness in itself. Shifting away from the deficit model of early intervention and education and towards the difference model would help to improve the literacy and educational achievements of Deaf people.

We reject the concept that deafness is the major cause of literacy problems in Deaf children. We attribute the literacy and educational problems of Deaf Canadians to the impaired communication environment surrounding them; to the deficit model orientation of early intervention, education, and teacher training programs; and to the lack of qualified Deaf professionals and educators in all such programs.

The CAD-ASC supports the principle that literacy is a crucial access point for Deaf Canadians to the non-Deaf world, and that it should take precedence over spoken English/French skills in all of the above programs. Being able to communicate with the hearing world through reading and writing is important for a Deaf individual’s future academic, professional, and social success.

Studies have shown that a bimodal/bicultural education for Deaf individuals promotes language development as well as literacy. Greater support in Sign language acquisition and development will provide the individuals with the linguistic building-blocks that enable the acquisition of a second language, such as English or French.

We subscribe to the difference model principle in which all the intact faculties and strengths of the Deaf individual are fully utilized in his/her development, as opposed to the attempted utilization of defective or inadequate faculties. Whether or not a Deaf individual has access to auditory stimulus via a cochlear implant or a hearing aid, Sign language support in acquiring literacy material should be a priority. Research shows that the establishment of Sign language as a first language promotes language development in the brain, which in turn facilitates the acquisition of reading and writing skills, whereas the deprivation of Sign language and the emphasis on auditory means to acquire linguistic attributes creates instead a global linguistic deprivation that makes the attainment of literacy skills very difficult.

In order to enhance the literacy and educational status of the Deaf individual, CAD-ASC makes the following points:

  1. The Deaf individual should have free and unrestricted access to visible and natural language and communication in order to promote first-language development and subsequently promote literacy.
  2. The focus should be shifted away from the deficit model and towards that of the difference model in all early intervention, education, and teacher training programs serving Deaf students.
  3. Such programs should commit themselves to the training and employment of qualified Deaf professionals and educators in significant numbers.
  4. Such programs should place greater emphasis on the employment of print language as a key instructional and communication modality.

Recommended reading: “Language acquisition for deaf children: reducing the harms of zero tolerance to the use of alternative approaches”, by Tom Humphries, Poorna Kushalnagar, Gaurav Mathur, Donna Jo Napoli, Carol Padden, Christian Rathmann, and Scott R. Smith. Harm Reduction Journal, 2012, 9:16.

Recommended reading: “The Implications of Bimodal Bilingual Approach for Children with Cochlear Implants”, by Julie Mitchiner, Debra Berlin Nussbaum, and Susanne Scott. Visual Language & Visual Learning, 2012.

Recommended reading: Deaf Illiteracy: A Genuine Educational Puzzle or an Instrument of Oppression? A Critical Review, by Roger Carver, Canadian Association of the Deaf, 1989.


The Canadian Association of the Deaf-Association des Sourds du Canada
606 – 251 Bank Street
Ottawa, Ontario K2P 1X3
(613) 565-2882