Connecting the dots: A successful transition for deaf students from vocational education and training to employment

By Catherine Clark Research report 12 December 2007 ISBN 978 1 921170 22 5


This study identifies and evaluates the pathways available from school to vocational education and training and to work, for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. Research involved interviews with seven young people from Victoria who had either just completed secondary school and were enrolling in a VET course, or had completed a course and were looking for work. The study found that only when they undertook apprenticeships and traineeships did students find employment related to their field, and that more emphasis needs to be placed on developing strategies to assist deaf students to overcome attitudinal barriers in the workplace.


About the research

Through interviews with seven young people from Victoria, this study identifies and evaluates the pathways available from vocational education and training (VET) to work for students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

  • Deaf people are able to access a variety of careers. Nevertheless, the ‘dots’, represented by secondary school deaf facilities, deaf schools, mainstream students and other support services available to deaf people, such as specialist employment agencies and disability liaison officers at technical and further education (TAFE) institutes, need to be better ‘connected’ to ensure a smoother transition from school, to further education and to employment. This will enable students to achieve more satisfying jobs commensurate with their skills and training.

  • Those interviewed indicated that their career options were limited by the perceptions, both their own and others, of what they were able to do.

  • The largest barrier faced by deaf and hard of hearing students in a learning environment is the availability and provision of communication support (such as Auslan—Australian Sign Language—interpreters, notetakers, real-time captioning and voice recognition software).

  • Deaf students require more specialised assistance, such as access to life coaching and specialist deaf career advisors to assist in determining appropriate career paths. The deaf people interviewed also felt they would like access to deaf role models and information in a more accessible format to help them to make more informed decisions about their career.

Executive summary


This project explored the journey that deaf people experienced in determining their career paths and future employment once secondary school had been completed. For any senior school student, this journey begins in Year 10, when teachers, parents, specialist career counsellors and other professionals begin to educate students about the wide range of career options and pathways available to them. This project aimed to determine how this progression of advice, study, and employment occurred in order to identify the areas in need of intervention so that, ultimately, a satisfactory outcome (that is, employment in the field in which the deaf person is qualified) could be achieved. If a holistic approach to this journey is not undertaken—by ‘connecting the dots’ effectively—then these students may become welfare-dependent, may be unable to hold down regular employment, and may encounter difficulties in their adult lives.

The research project involved case studies of seven deaf people who were between the ages of 15 and 30 years and who had either just completed secondary school and were enrolling in a vocational education and training (VET) course, or who had just completed a VET course and were looking for work. The seven participants represented a broad cross-section of people with hearing loss, drawn from both metropolitan and rural areas. There were six males and one female in the group.

Each participant was interviewed twice and a total of fourteen interviews were conducted. The interviewer herself was deaf and communicated using Auslan (Australian Sign Language). Four of the participants were also Auslan users, with the remaining three communicating via speech. At each interview there was an Auslan interpreter present for two reasons: first, because when two deaf people communicate using Auslan there is a need to record the dialogue onto an audiocassette; therefore, the Auslan interpreter ‘voiced’ the signs—what was said—into the tape. The second reason was that the deaf interviewer could not always understand what the deaf people who did not use Auslan said, due to lip-reading difficulties. Accordingly, an Auslan interpreter was again used to interpret what they said to ensure clear communication and understanding.

Although the sample size was limited, a range of valuable insights were obtained from the project’s informants. These are outlined below.

The study found that, while deaf school leavers were able to access several career pathways, questions remained over whether they were able to obtain maximum benefit from these experiences. It is suggested that, by making the appropriate choice, deaf people would be more likely to enjoy a long and successful career. The study also found that students who graduated from a VET course did not find employment related to their field except where they were undertaking a traineeship or apprenticeship and gaining practical experience in the workplace. More emphasis also needs to be placed on developing strategies to assist deaf students to overcome the attitudinal barriers resulting from their hearing loss and which prevented them from pursuing certain career paths.

Informed choice

Like the general population, deaf young people rely on their parents, teachers of the deaf and peers to assist them to consider their future career options. However, there is a perception in the broader community and amongst careers professionals that, regardless of degree of hearing loss, such individuals are still ‘deaf’ and therefore unable to undertake a range of employment options—an assumption that is both erroneous and potentially severely limiting.

The research found that it would be useful to develop career guidance materials specifically aimed at deaf students, because some of the written information available can be complex, and therefore difficult to read and comprehend. As well, there is a view that it would be extremely beneficial for these individuals to have access to deaf role models, for example, through presentations at school from other deaf people holding the types of jobs in which they were interested, and for discussing career possibilities with deaf people themselves, thus enabling them to make more informed choices about their future career options.

Most importantly, the report highlights the need for better linkages of services to support deaf people in the move from school, to further study and to work. It suggests that specialist careers advisors, working closely with employment agencies servicing people with the disability of deafness, could provide realistic and functional workplace information prior to job seeking.

Experience and opportunities of VET

For some students, especially those who communicate using Auslan and have been through a deaf facility or deaf school, the challenge of commencing a VET course with 20 to 30 other hearing people who do not know Auslan can be quite daunting.

As well, many people who communicate using Auslan find it challenging to watch interpreters all the time; it is very draining watching the same person for several hours. There are also often problems with attracting and retaining interpreters. On occasions, interpreters or notetakers are sick or do not turn up, and this is frustrating for the deaf learners as there may be no time to find a replacement. This means that students have to either miss the class or sit in the classroom and not understand what is being discussed—a very demoralising experience for deaf people.

Some hearing-impaired students use an electronic FM system in the classroom to enhance what they can hear, but just having this facility was not seen as sufficient to ensure they were able to understand all that was happening. Often tutorial support was required to clarify information discussed and to ensure they properly understood what they had learnt. This service was available to them at secondary school but many found they were not always able to get the tutorial support at technical and further education (TAFE) institutes in Victoria.

Employment outcomes

Barriers to employment opportunities are a problem for many, and some are deterred from completing courses, or unsure of the usefulness of the outcome due to the uncertainty of sustainable employment opportunities. There is also uncertainty about how to overcome the barriers perceived by employers. A wide range of barriers to employment exist for deaf and hard of hearing people and many are attributable to the lack of awareness amongst employers of the skills and abilities deaf people can bring to a job. Many employers are therefore unaware of the ways in which a person with a hearing loss can, both safely and adequately, contribute fully in the workplace and not become a ‘burden’ to be accommodated by the employer.

From the information obtained through the interviews, it was found that those who have a clear career pathway through either an apprenticeship or traineeship had more success in obtaining work related to their studies. By comparison, those who did not have a clear pathway—particularly a contract of training, which characterises both apprenticeships and traineeships—were not successful in gaining employment during the six-month period of the study.

In addition, specialist disability employment organisations may have limited experience working with deaf people, particularly in relation to advocating for adjustments and overcoming employers’ attitudinal barriers because they (the employers) are unaware of the adjustments that can be made to accommodate the needs of employees who are deaf or hearing-impaired; for example, how to overcome perceived occupational health and safety risks.

The task of raising awareness is significant as it requires a major paradigm shift, not only by employers and employment agencies, but also by the community at large. Legislation has provided for equality of rights, but it has not changed attitudes and misconceptions about the skills and abilities of deaf people.


This research project reveals that deaf people are accessing a wide range of pathways. However, what is clear is that the ‘dots’ are not being connected between a range of education providers and specific support agencies (including employment agencies) to ensure that deaf people are able to make the most of their potential and progress towards satisfying career outcomes. The majority of the people interviewed, especially those who communicate using Auslan, were still unsure of what their long-term career path would be.

Policy implications

Other people’s expectations of deaf people who use sign language to communicate have historically been extremely low, with the skills and abilities of these individuals generally not being fully recognised and used. In the past, deaf people have been undereducated as a direct result of beliefs held about the importance of the development of speech skills, and their academic abilities would have largely been ignored. Those with a mild or moderate hearing loss have fared a great deal better as they are able to manage with the assistance of a hearing aid in general day-to-day activities.

Today, then, high but realistic expectations are crucial. In particular, school career advisors need to be informed about the appropriate provision of advice to deaf people. Deaf people are now better educated and some have broken through the barriers and are working in high-level positions; however, many are still streamed into a handful of potential employment areas that are seen as a ‘good’ job for a deaf person.

The situation needs to change. This research highlights the need for improved access to information on career pathways. It advocates for funding to be allocated for the employment of specially trained careers counsellors/life coaches to assist deaf school leavers. The research suggests that a resource kit be developed to educate deaf students about disability discrimination law; the kit should also provide strategies to deal with obstacles in educational and employment settings. Further work needs to be undertaken to encourage high but realistic expectations of the students, both by employers and tertiary education establishments. It is essential that obstacles associated with obtaining interpreter and/or notetaker support are eliminated.

The report further suggests that a longitudinal study be undertaken to track a group of deaf students in deaf schools, deaf facilities and in mainstream settings, and to study their progress from school, to further study in VET or higher education to employment. Finally, it is proposed that a better understanding be gained of the numbers of deaf people who require support in an educational setting, along with an assessment of whether those people are obtaining employment outcomes commensurate with their training.

Outline of support documents

This report is complemented by two support documents. The first provides a statistical snapshot of students with a hearing loss in VET in Australia. The second provides more detailed accounts of the seven deaf and hard of hearing people studied in this research. This latter document provides a richer and fuller account than the present report. The support documents are available at <>.


nr04004 .pdf 695.3 KB Download
nr04004 .doc 324.5 KB Download
Case studies of deaf people who have graduated from or just commenced study in VET .pdf 251.1 KB Download
Students with a hearing loss in VET in Australia - A statistical snapshot .doc 464.5 KB Download