National Research Agenda

John Schroedel, Doug Watson, Don Ashmore, & Ramon Rodriguez


The National Research Agenda is a product of teamwork. Why was this Agenda developed? It came out of an unfunded mandate within the Education of the Deaf Act to establish a Commission on the Education of the Deaf primarily focused on postsecondary education and secondarily on K-12 education. Thus, it was a reverse of the 1988 group (Commission,1988). This proposed Commission asked us to identify the problems with educating deaf people, how to support them, and how to demonstrate that they could achieve. We have always been doing that. We always talk about our failures and the needs that deaf people have because they are deaf. So the group of us got together and decided that we wanted to take a different approach. We wanted to focus on what it was that made deaf people succeed. What are the keys to this success? How did I get here? How did you get here? We decided not to remain as just a small closed group, but rather to get professionals from different fields from all over the country to come to the table together to design the National Research Agenda. My role was to bring the group together and to coordinate the subsequent efforts.

Some Important Terms

Let us clarify some key concepts from the title sheet of our presentation. Postsecondary education includes both collegiate and vocational programs. Career training leads to all credentials ranging from a vocational diploma to a doctoral degree. Hearing loss includes persons who: (a) became deaf before adulthood, (b) became deaf during adulthood, or (c) are hard of hearing. More than 30 professionals collaborated in preparing the National Research Agenda. The persons listed as co-presenters of today’s session had different leadership roles to get this endeavor started and completed. As a visionary facilitator, Don Ashmore, Director of the Postsecondary Education Consortium at the University of Tennessee, initiated our work and got us to develop and refine our ideas. We recognize this leadership under the auspices of PEPNet. The University of Tennessee and the University of Arkansas are fiercely competitive sports rivals in the Southeastern Conference, but when it comes to a subject like this, we are allies. Allies as strong as Britain and the United States in the Iraq war. Relevantly, the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center at the University of Arkansas got a national grant in 1983 to study the postsecondary education of deaf students. The project team went into 20 states and assessed 46 training programs with specialized support services for deaf students. That is how the Center got started in the postsecondary business. Don Ashmore was on the Center’s National Advisory Council and since then we have worked together on many projects. Douglas Watson, Director of the Center, has a long-standing interest in postsecondary education. It was his idea to use focus groups to enable participants to synergistically articulate key components of the National Research Agenda. Ramon Rodriguez is the liaison person in the U.S. Department of Education (USDED) responsible for oversight of Gallaudet University, NTID at RIT, and the four regional Technical Assistance Centers that comprise PEPNet. Thus, he is naturally interested in a "blue print," such as the National Research Agenda, to set guidelines for research on the postsecondary education of students with hearing loss. These three persons were among the key leaders who forged the Agenda into a final report. John Schroedel’s roles have been primarily as writer, editor, and co-presenter.

Session Goals

During this session we want to present a picture of what we mean by the National Research Agenda then open it up for discussion with ample time for your feedback. Ever since the first stages in preparing this Agenda service and research professionals have been equal partners. I want to make it abundantly clear that research is important, particularly research that solves problems. We are the least interested in theoretical or academic research. What counts is research that gives you knowledge as service professionals to improve your work. That is our job. We recognize that the vast professional experience among people like you as front-line service providers is a very important resource in developing useful research. We need to blend your knowledge with the knowledge from researchers to make this Agenda fly. This is why we have designed this participatory conference session.

Objectives of the Agenda

Bringing together federal officials, researchers, and service professionals was instrumental for developing the National Research Agenda which includes a conceptual framework that integrates research. The problem is that there have been many different research projects over the years and we lack the big picture to bring them all together. We had a grant here and had a grant there, then think our work is done. But there has been little integration of the knowledge base. As research money is spent federal officials want a "bigger bang for their buck." This is one of the motives behind the National Research Agenda. Furthermore, we encourage groups of professionals and consumers who are deaf, late deafened, or hard of hearing to be involved and ultimately support this Agenda. We plan later to present it to the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) within USDED. Then with a federal endorsement we will go to Congress and seek funding. Once we are set up, we want collaboration between researchers. We want people to think outside of the box: outside of the vocational rehabilitation box or the postsecondary box, outside of the Gallaudet box or the NTID box, outside of the Deaf box or the hard of hearing box, as any among many examples. After people see the bigger picture, then, as necessary, carve it out, and go from there. That is, begin with the integrative conceptual framework described below and then develop specific interlocking research studies. Professionals from all backgrounds across the board will be involved. We need your feedback in order to make this successful. You think we are going to sit in an ivory tower and cook up research projects and this will all be successful? No, we need your involvement from day one. People who are deaf, late-deafened, and hard of hearing will equally be involved. Later we will talk more about the utilization of research results to improve services and the quality of lives among people we serve.

Purposes of the Agenda

What is the purpose of the National Research Agenda? Ever since 1864 when President Lincoln signed the charter for what now known as Gallaudet University, the federal government has been involved in the postsecondary education of first deaf people and later hard of hearing people. Today we have a rainbow of different post-high school academic, vocational, and career preparation programs in the 50 states ranging from prestigious universities to rehabilitation facilities for students with hearing loss. There are 5,000 colleges and universities and 5,000 for-profit trade training programs in the United States. One need for research is to identify the number of deaf and hard of hearing college students. The most broadly cited number is 25,000 during the 1990s. The actual estimated number of 468,000 is less than 4% of the 15 million students in college across the 50 states today (Schroedel, Watson, & Ashmore, 2003).

The National Research Agenda can benefit federal agencies in several important ways. First, legislation recently passed by Congress requires different federal agencies to collaborate on enhancing work force development and reducing welfare dependency. Federal agencies need better knowledge to achieve these legislatively mandated missions. Second, other Congressional legislation has mandated that federal agencies be accountable for their funding. This means: how does the agency spend money to achieve it’s goals? Some agencies simply do not have a database to answer that. Part of our work now is to assist relevant federal agencies obtain a better picture of the money invested in postsecondary training of deaf and hard of hearing students. In addition to 468,000 deaf and hard of hearing college students there is the un-estimated number of students with hearing loss enrolled in non-academic vocational training programs. Considering tuition, fees, room and board, plus salaries, benefits, and expenses for services professionals, we are talking about a sizable amount of funding. Third, agency administrators must annually report to Congress what their programs have achieved and seek approval for funding new agency initiatives. Presently Congress and the nation face a funding shortage squeezed by war, the weak economy, and other factors. We have to increasingly and competitively justify federal financial investment in the postsecondary training of deaf and hard of hearing students. One objective of the National Research Agenda is to enable federal agencies to inform Congress: this is what we are achieving with federal funding in the postsecondary training of deaf and hard of hearing students. This would be a victory in the economic battle.

A Conceptual Framework

During 2000, a total of 30 professionals met in focus groups at California State University at Northridge and during the PEPNet conference in Denver. These professionals represented a wide variety of researchers, postsecondary and vocational rehabilitation program administrators, and federal officials. One product from these meetings was a conceptual framework or "blueprint" to help integrate the future knowledge base of research on the post-high school training of deaf and hard of hearing students. The following figure diagrams this conceptual framework. First, we are emphasizing outcomes. There has been, I think, a relevant imbalance of research on the process of postsecondary education, for example, on the use and benefits of various support services. However, little is known about the outcomes of postsecondary training. What are the eventual results after support services are provided? What is the payoff? There is a lack of conclusive information to address key issues. What really enhances retention? What leads to permanent employment? Because we need to know we have result-focused goals such as the outcomes listed in the center of this figure. As envisioned in this conceptual model, there are three central areas, or clusters of variables, that influence these outcomes. The first includes academic and non-academic access services of all kinds. Next are differences in the characteristics of the students themselves: for example, those who are deaf, hard of hearing, with cochlear implants, from ethnic minority groups, or who are deaf and low functioning. Even though the postsecondary environment may primarily exist on campus, it could also found be off campus. The learning and living environment is where ever instruction and learning occur in collegiate and career preparation programs. Each of these three key areas include many different attributes. This figure merely provides "the big picture" of the conceptual framework of the National Research Agenda.

Audience: And also could you mention families?

Panel: Yes, we would put family background within the population category. Family involvement is also part of the transition into post-high school settings.

Audience: My vocational rehabilitation clients involve some who cannot make it through formal training programs and are only going to become employed if they have on-the-job training that meets their access needs. And I just wonder if those situations are included in your definition of the learning and living environment?

Panel: That is included in postsecondary training which covers everything A to Z. Nothing is left out.

Panel: We would like to add that in characterizing targeted postsecondary populations, we have had discussions recently about the labels that are used. We think our labels are often hurting us. The label, for example, for persons who are low functioning and deaf can become a very emotionally tied issue. So we are deciding to throw out the labels and very careful looking at the population itself. Maybe we will decide it may be necessary to eliminate those labels in order to provide the proper support to those individuals. We must be able to identify their needs independent of labels.

A Model Research Project

The next figure provides one example of a potential research project. This addresses the national goal of improving job readiness programs at two-year and four-year colleges, which includes preparing for and retaining a job. This means not just being placed on a work site and left there where chances are the deaf consumer will end up on welfare. The other section of the figure represents elements in the learning and instructional environment regardless if that occurs on campus or on-the-job training sites. A living-learning environment could be in a college or in a rehabilitation facility. One key attribute of this environment is the human players involved. One aspect of this is preparing postsecondary teachers to know how to instruct and deal with their students with hearing loss. One component of that is the teacher’s attitudes. Yesterday in a session on hard of hearing college students we mentioned the example of the professor who used an assistive listening device, did not turn it on, and gave the hard of hearing student a D. These things do happen (Kelley, Schroedel, & Conway, 2003). Uncooperative and paternalistic attitudes of professors and service staff impair enhancing instruction.

Several characteristics of our student populations are important. We must recognize that first and foremost every student is an individual with a different learning style. We have to optimize the ways by which we understand teaching and tutoring each individual student with a hearing loss. We often have to customize rather than standardize. We may to do one thing in the classroom and something else, such one-to-one tutoring, outside of class. The key is to recognize group and individual needs of the student population. Furthermore, the peer social life, including appropriate housing, for students with hearing loss is a very important part of this environment. This brief overview is merely a quick summary of some of the central variables needed to be examined in this prospective research project. There are many other examples of research projects that could be derived from the conceptual framework.

Consumer Involvement in Research

Another important phase of research includes involving service professionals as well as consumers and leaders who are deaf, late deaf or hard of hearing in the process of developing research projects and utilizing their results. What is today called research translation was previously known as research utilization. USDED has a traditional model of research translation known as the Strategic Education Research Plan (SERP). Looking at Figure 1, we see policy makers and teachers collaborate with educational researchers who then conduct studies and synthesize results with policy making and teacher development leading to classroom practices which, in turn, hypothetically influence student learning. However, some key players are missing in this process. Consumers are not involved in this model. Look at Figure 2. See the difference? This example includes policy making, professional development, and involvement of teacher trainers, teachers, parents, and others who need to know research results so that they can better understand and apply them. This means that researchers equally respect and need service professionals like you. We have to move away from the traditional theoretical-academic model representing the past to the applied research problem-solving model which represents the future. Theories help to organize ideas for research, but should not be an end all for studies.

Participant’s Comments

Audience: I read Doug Watson’s research on how many deaf people were really benefitting from postsecondary education. I am not exactly sure of the numbers, but I remember about only 25% of the deaf population were benefitting from postsecondary education, which left 75% out of the loop completely for services. What I know is from my area, all the community services agencies, like the one in my town, are closing. There is no funding. The university programs aren’t closing, but many deaf people are not getting the services they need to live and be self-sufficient.

Panel: We think your numbers are from the Institute on Rehabilitation Issues report on deaf individuals who are low functioning (Dew, 1999). Maybe the IRI report is trying to communicate the concept that postsecondary training includes everything across the board, which includes career training other than just college. Yes, about 25% of deaf people can benefit from college whereas a vast majority need different kinds of non-academic preparation for the future. The National Research Agenda is attempting to address these issues within the broadest possible context of postsecondary education.

Audience: When I look at some of the programs in California, for example, I notice they are doing a lot more job placement and training people how to find apartments from a community college platform. But what about the community support service organizations, the hubs of deaf culture in the areas? There is no federal funding or anything in the Rehabilitation Act. I know they are trying to put funding in the Act for those types of agencies. But our agency just closed down after 12 years.

Panel: You are completely right because we have to keep the big picture in mind. Two quick statistics: (1) for every four deaf students who start college, three drop out without completing a degree and (2) from our Center’s analysis of the RSA-911 national database on VR case closures we know that 75% of prevocationally deaf consumers get non-academic vocational training services sponsored by VR. Those numbers support your concepts. Expand your vocabulary a bit. For example, it is not just academic programs, but also it is the community support needed by many deaf persons to make the successful transition from the program into successful employment.

Panel: We are talking right now about two different issues. On the one hand we are talking about the future. We are trying to understand and learn what makes success happen from a very young age as we grow up. And the other side, we are talking about people who need help as they unsuccessfully go through the education system. They become dependent on welfare. Many of them go to community colleges because they have an open-door policy. There is no other place to go. They do not belong there, but where do they go? What are their placement options? With the National Research Agenda, we are not ignoring non-collegiate career training programs. Forcing them to go to college is like the easiest path to go down the river. We talk about our need to learn. Deaf adults become left behind and become more dependent as time goes by. They need to learn how to empower themselves for the future. That really hit us strongly. It made us feel it was so much more important to look at now. But it is tough when they have neither been prepared nor established the internal mentality that are the keys to become successful and independent. This includes the know how to use the system for one’s benefit and not be dependent on what other people say is important. So what we are facing is many deaf students enrolling in academic postsecondary education who really do not really belong there. Then we blame them because we cannot really help them succeed. All this results in low retention and graduation rates and conversely in high dropout rates. It is ridiculous because we cannot control who enters the educational system.

Audience: I am from the Washington State School for the Deaf and we talk about that 70% who are transfer students or low functioning students. When they go into a community college in the state they are required to improve their reading level. So they get stuck there because they have to improve their English skills in order to matriculate and go on. When I look at the Texas program, they accept students with a low reading level which makes that a great opportunity. So the question is: can we set up programs for deaf students with a second- or third-grade reading level at a community college and help them with their language so they can achieve?

Audience: That issue has been articulated for 20 years to essentially establish ten regional comprehensive facilities for the academically challenged or low functioning deaf group. There is a clear need for that.

Panel: We would like to add that we are also chairing another focus group on addressing the needs of what we might call the low functioning deaf people. We are concerned that many direct services are being stopped. We are determined to get that money restored to the proper programs and get those programs set up in the community again. But that is actually another focus group we have organized to address that need. We will be meeting again in the upcoming 2003 ADARA conference in New Jersey.

Audience: I have a question about the National Research Agenda. I think this is fabulous what you are doing. I see a huge need and I think our job will never be finished because it will always be there. I wonder what is the difference between the National Research Agenda and the Gallaudet University Research Institute?

Panel: We have read the different research priorities for both Gallaudet and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. Let us say that most of what is at the Gallaudet Research Institute are topics like K-12 education, American Sign Language, bi-lingual/bi-cultural learning environments, and related issues. They do very little research on postsecondary education or employment. NTID is doing a lot of research on how to enhance the learning and teaching environment in a federally funded technical institute with sophisticated support services that might not be applicable to local colleges lacking equitable resources. Also, NTID is conducting some career development research. Both programs do research that meets their legislative or other mandates. Their research priorities are on the web page for each program.

Audience: I would like to discuss several issues. I think maybe you’re still a little bit in the box. First, my guess is if there is about 468,000 deaf and hard of hearing students in colleges across the country, that probably between 33% to 66% are hard of hearing adults returning to college, perhaps already having been in the workplace and having experienced hearing loss later in life. At the Veteran’s Administration in about a year we are going to see an influx of about 20,000 to 30,000 former military personnel coming to college who have had their hearing damaged in the Iraq war. Second, I think there are a whole lot of issues there that you have not begin to look at. If we do not talk about these issues up front, then we run the risk of saying oh, yes, there is that issue, but it keeps getting marginalized. That is a real problem that we have sometimes seen in our systems here. For example, a big issue unlikely to be addressed is: are hard of hearing persons ready to use an FM system or are they willing to use a hearing aid at all? So there are a lot of fundamental questions that we often overlook.

Audience: One thing I am not clear about is how do you plan to disseminate information from projects developed from the National Research Agenda? How do you plan to distribute this information and exactly how do you plan to provide these services once your findings from your research show what is needed? How are you going to deliver the services?

Panel: Any cost-effective way possible to get out this information will be used. Conventionally, that includes conference presentations, training workshops, journal articles, and incisive research briefs. Electronically we will use web sites and listservs. The primary target groups will be VR and DSS professionals who can then educate the academic personnel on campus or other career training sites.

Audience: My question is what is DSS?

Panel: Disabled student support services.

Panel: Let us close by saying we have always been a little put off by research. But, you know, we have learned the benefit of research. We have learned that students who have a vocational goal will probably graduate because they know where they are going and they will work harder because they have that goal. There are things we have learned through research that really help us and it has helped me to relate better to the people we serve. We hope that this blueprint we have presented today is not seen as the final form, but will rather serve as a model. It perhaps can be expanded to include the K-12 population. We do not know. But we are just trying to generate interest and support for this effort. Thank all of you for your attention today.


Commission on the Education of the Deaf. (1988). Towards equality: Education of the deaf Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Dew, D. W. (Ed.). (1999). Serving individuals who are low-functioning deaf (25th Institute on Rehabilitation Issues, Rehabilitation Services Administration grant H264A980002). Washington, DC: George Washington University, Regional Rehabilitation Continuing Education Program.

Kelley, C., Schroedel, J., & Conway, P. (2003). Reaching the "invisible population": Enhancing VR and DSS services to hard of hearing college students. In C. Davis (Ed.), Proceedings of the Western Symposium on Rehabilitation and Deafness:

Schroedel, J.G., Watson, D., & Ashmore, D.H. (2003). A National Research Agenda for the postsecondary education of deaf and hard of hearing students: A road map for the future. American Annals of the Deaf,148(2), 67-73.

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