Deaf Education Terminology

There are terms that are used in the education sector that may be new for some people – this resource is to explain some of the terms you may come across in the Deaf world, particularly in Deaf education.


Audism is a form of discrimination or bias that occurs when people judge, mistreat, or marginalize Deaf and hard of hearing people. It can take many forms: a negative attitude or prejudice towards Deaf or hard-of-hearing people, people making assumptions about what d/Deaf people can/can’t do, Deaf people being excluded from social or work environments, Deaf people being overlooked for leadership positions, being disregarded in contexts that have a direct impact on the Deaf community and use of NZSL.

Examples of audism experienced in the education sector in NZ:

  • The lack of workforce development to ensure Deaf professionals have a pathway through education and are visible at every level of the education sector.
  • The default position of deaf learners enrolling in mainstream schools perpetuates the isolation experienced by deaf children.
  • Deaf students excluded from opportunities at school because they are Deaf and/or use NZSL and it is seen as too difficult to provide access.
  • When Deaf professionals feel over-looked for leadership positions in education. Hearing professionals entering the Deaf education sector and taking on leadership/decision making roles without cultural or linguistic competence or experience in Deaf education.
  • Resource Teachers of the Deaf who are not fluent in NZSL being assigned to Deaf students in mainstream classrooms– Often Deaf children are teaching the teacher aide NZSL.
  • The barriers in place that restrict Deaf teachers entering Deaf education after completing their degree. Hearing teachers with no experience in Deaf culture or NZSL are able to take on a role in Deaf education and complete their Teacher of the Deaf training, yet that is not available to new Deaf teachers of the Deaf – they are expected to go and teach in the mainstream for two years before they qualify for the training. There is no recognition of the cultural knowledge and experience they bring to Deaf education. This is not the case in Māori education.
  • Use of phrases in recruitment like “NZSL would be an advantage” and “This role will include some skills in NZ Sign Language or willingness to learn” – implying that learning a language and then using it to provide access to the curriculum for a deaf child is a simple straightforward task.

DEAF EPISTEMOLOGY – Deaf World knowledge:

Deaf Epistemology is equivalent to Matauranga Maori and should be respected as such.

Deaf Epistemology is a way of looking at how Deaf people understand and gain knowledge about the world. It is based on the idea that Deaf people have their own ways of knowing and experiencing the world that may be different from hearing people. Deaf people often use NZSL and have a strong sense of community and identity. Deaf epistemology acknowledges and values these unique ways of knowing and understanding. It emphasises that Deaf people’s experiences and perspectives are just as valid and important as those of hearing people.

Deaf epistemology may include: visual-spatial cognition; cultural/linguistic perspectives- Deaf culture and Sign Language are integral; social/community-based knowledge -shared experiences, Global citizens; resistance to audism; Deaf identity and self-concept.

Deaf epistemology challenges traditional, hearing-centric assumptions. In the education context it is critical to be aware that ‘Deaf children are not hearing children who cannot hear’. (Marc Marschark)


Communication using languages in two different modes.

For deaf children it refers to the use of NZSL and a spoken and/or a written language.


Ability to use two languages – eg NZSL and English (spoken and or written); NZSL and Te Reo Maori

Bilingualism doesn’t mean equal proficiency in both languages necessarily.


When children have limited or no exposure to an accessible language in the critical period of language acquisition. Language deprivation has long lasting impacts on social and cognitive development.

“…the aggregation of beliefs, resources and interactions at the local level of mainstream schools may still construct isolated deaf students as impaired monolinguals and/or marginal bilinguals who have restricted access to the social and academic life of the classroom. A perception of sign language as an ancillary, transitional tool for accessing the curriculum and English rather than as a native language for mediating learning and social identity is manifested in the structure of interventions and human resources.”

McKee, 2008. The Construction of Deaf Children as Marginal Bilinguals in the Mainstream.


The process of an individual understanding and accepting their Deaf identity. Looking at the world through a Deaf lens and not a medical /deficit model. For Deaf children it is important that they encounter a variety of Deaf adults and NZSL users to develop a positive Deaf identity. Interacting with Deaf peers and Deaf adults enables deaf children to develop confidence and a sense of who they are as a Deaf person.


Reframing from notion of ‘hearing loss’ to ‘Deaf gain’ – looking at the ways that deaf people and society have benefited from the existence of deaf people and sign language throughout history. advantages that Deaf people have and the positive aspects the Deaf community contribute to society.


Deaf space is a where Deaf people do not need special accommodations (NZSL interpreters) – the space is fit for purpose and allows Deaf to communicate with ease and participate fully.


The default educational placement for deaf learners in NZ is currently mainstream schools. Often the team around the child see the setting as accessible/appropriate but when the situation is unpacked the deaf learner is not accessing the full school day nor the social interactions around them. Often the resources/people in school, to provide access, are not available throughout the day.

A mediated education experience will always be a lower level of access then direct instruction in a shared language. This experience has been described as the ‘illusion of inclusion’. In settings where the teacher aide is the only ‘NZSL user’ in the school there can develop an over-dependence on teacher aides. The teacher aide often becomes a language model for the student – however they may not be fluent in NZSL themselves – this negatively impacts the Deaf students’ development in a number of areas: linguistic, social skills, independence.

The lack of Deaf pedagogy knowledge in NZ means teachers have to rely on mainstream pedagogy even if it doesn’t work for Deaf learners. Educators of the Deaf can struggle to access the resources they need as they have other competing demands on their time.

Deaf learners who have experienced NZSL rich environments through primary school and have acquired foundation skills in all curriculum areas can then take those into mainstream settings in high school to access the curriculum via an Educational Interpreter. Without the foundation skills, deaf learners will struggle to access the curriculum.


Inclusive bilingual schools provide:

  • Early acquisition and ongoing learning of NZSL in NZSL rich environments at home and school from identification throughout the child’s school years.
  • Education including ECE and schools is provided in quality bilingual NZSL schools.
  • quality teaching in NZSL and English.
  • peers who are deaf and use NZSL learning together.
  • teachers fluent in NZSL, including Deaf teachers.
  • teaching of the national curriculum with the addition of teaching of NZSL and Deaf culture.
  • Foster, respect and celebrate the cultural and linguistic identity of deaf children.
  • People who are deaf can equitably access teacher training programmes and do not experience barriers to becoming qualified and registered teachers.

Bilingual education addresses the needs of the whole child within their family, community and society. It recognises the relationship between language development, cognitive development and social/emotional development. Bilingual education fosters positive self-esteem, confidence, resilience, and identity, factors necessary for lifelong learning and success.

NZ Curriculum key competences:

  • Thinking – Deaf students need learning opportunities that stretch their thinking in ways that are appropriate in terms of their language needs. When done appropriately Deaf students can achieve on par or better than hearing.
  • Relating to others – Deaf learners need Deaf learners. Deaf students need environments where they can genuinely relate to others directly in a shared accessible language. Strong relationship skills with Deaf enable the development of foundation skills that can then be transferred to relating with hearing peers in mainstream settings. Deaf children need to have the opportunity to develop age-appropriate language and social skills in a language rich learning environment.
  • Using language, symbols, and texts – Deaf students need access to NZSL in all aspects of their life from their peers, educators, whanau, etc. Educators with poor NZSL competency should not be the limitation of students’ learning.
  • Managing self – Deaf students need environments where they can independently lead their own learning, communicate with all their peers/educators/etc to build their skills/knowledge.
  • Participating and contributing – Deaf students need environments where they (can under their own steam) genuinely and fully participate and contribute without restrictions placed upon them by e.g. teacher aides who struggle to follow due to limited NZSL skills.

We expect hearing learners to achieve all of the above, we must have the same expectations for Deaf learners.

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

Nelson Mandela