What is a Deaf Studies Degree?

The Deaf Studies curriculum is composed of courses in American Sign Language (ASL), Deaf culture, Deaf education, and Deaf history. Classes cover the linguistic structure, grammar, and vocabulary of ASL, as well as the sociocultural impacts related to being deaf or hard of hearing. Programs prepare students to work as sign language interpreters for the Deaf community in life and in the work world and introduce them to the field of ASL interpretation and translation.

Program Options

Certificate in Deaf Studies – Up to One Year Duration
Associate Degree in Deaf Studies – Two Year Duration
In many cases, the people who pursue a Certificate or Associate Degree in Deaf Studies do so to be able to communicate with deaf clients or deaf family members, and to better understand Deaf culture. Doctors, lawyers, and parents of deaf children are examples. However, the associate level program also serves as an introductory curriculum for those considering further education in Deaf Studies and/or American Sign Language (ASL). Unlike a certificate program, the associate program also incorporates some general education courses in subjects such as English, math, and the social sciences.

Bachelor’s Degree in Deaf Studies – Four Year Duration
The Bachelor’s Degree in Deaf Studies is the most common credential in the field. The bachelor’s curriculum prepares students to be advocates for and with the Deaf community. Most programs are structured around classroom learning, Deaf community engagement and fieldwork, and an internship. Graduates with this undergraduate degree often go on to work in Deaf-related careers such as administration, research, advocacy, or education.

Here are some sample courses that make up the Deaf Studies curriculum. Of course, the depth to which these subjects are addressed varies depending on whether a student selects a certificate, associate, or bachelor’s program.

  • Introduction to Cultural Studies – introduction to the terminology, analytical methods, and interpretive approaches used in cultural studies; investigation of the social, aesthetic, ethical, and political dimensions of culture
  • American Sign Language I – basic introduction to ASL; recognizing and producing signs in ASL; developing skills in expressing and understanding ASL through discussions of topics such as exchanging personal information and talking about surroundings, residences, families, and activities
  • American Sign Language II – further training in expressive and receptive skills, finger spelling, vocabulary-building, and grammatical structures; developing an understanding of use of classifiers (things, shapes, sizes, usage, movement, speed) and signing space in ASL; topics include giving directions, describing physical characteristics, making requests, discussion of occupations, attributing qualities to individuals, and daily routines
  • Deaf Culture – introduction to aspects of the Deaf community as a linguistic and cultural minority group, the nature of sign language and its varieties, education of deaf people, historical treatment of deaf people, sociological and cultural issues important to the Deaf community, political activism
  • Introduction to Career Opportunities within the Deaf Community – introduction to the field of ASL/English interpretation; the interpreter’s role and ethical decision making
  • American Sign Language III – further vocabulary-building and mastery of grammar, complex grammatical structures; topics discussed in ASL include the location and description of items in rooms and buildings, complaints, making suggestions, and making requests
  • American Sign Language IV – continued development of receptive and expressive skills in ASL; student use ASL to talk about life events, describe objects, and discuss activities and current events
  • Deaf Representations in Media – examination of the portrayal of Deaf and hard-of-hearing people in television, film, theater, books, and news media; changing attitudes towards the community, deafness, and sign language; language, rhetoric, imagery, and treatment of characters and actual persons in the media
  • Historical and Cultural Perspectives on Deaf American Artists and Art – visual art history and Dear Arts, historical and cultural perception of Deaf artists and their works; students produce a body of work demonstrating a Deaf experience related to painting, sculpture, and installation spaces
  • Linguistics of American Sign Language – the linguistic structure of American Sign Language, including phonology (patterning of sounds), morphology (word structure), syntax (sentence structure), semantics (meaning), and pragmatics (language in context); comparison of the structures of ASL and English
  • Visual Methodologies – discussion of our visually oriented society and how information is presented distributed, and gathered; the importance of visual stimuli and visual forms of information to the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community
  • Advanced American Sign Language – advanced linguistic structure; vocabulary-building specific to areas in which interpreters find the greatest challenges, such as medical, legal, computer technology, sports, religion, academics, and business
  • Deaf Education – overview of the education of the deaf and hard-of-hearing; language acquisition, history and practices of Deaf education, technologies used in Deaf education, educational philosophies, legislation that has impacted the lives of deaf and hard-of-hearing children
  • American Sign Language Literature – study of the works of respected ASL storytellers; discussion of how ASL narratives portray deaf people and reaffirm their identities of a distinct cultural group; how ASL narratives are formed without a written system and how they are preserved and passed down through generations

Master’s Degree in Deaf Studies – Two Year Duration
Master’s level degrees in Deaf Studies are not common. Those that do exist are typically offered in specific focus areas such as cultural studies, language and human rights, and sign language education/teaching. Programs typically include an internship. The culminating requirement for a Deaf Studies master’s degree may be a thesis, a creative project, or an advocacy project.

Degrees Similar to Deaf Studies

American Sign Language
Degree programs in American Sign Language teach the vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, word/sentence order, and intonation of ASL – conveyed by hand shape, palm orientation, hand movement, hand location, and gestures. Programs also expose students to the culture of the Deaf community.

Audiology degree programs prepare students to work as audiologists, specialized doctors trained to measure hearing ability and function and provide hearing rehabilitation. Subject areas covered include hearing disorders, genetics and hearing loss, hearing conservation, speech science and perception, pediatric audiology, geriatric audiology, and forensic audiology.

Communicative Disorders
This degree is closely connected to the speech-language pathology degree. A communicative disorders assistant is trained to assist a speech-language pathologist with the delivery of therapy. The curriculum focuses on communication disorders such as articulation disorders, phonological disorders, aphasia, delayed language, acquired deafness, and autism-related disorders.

Degree programs in sociology are focused on studying groups, from two people and beyond. Sociology students examine human behavior patterns and relationships at both the micro-level and the macro-level. They study interactions between individuals as well as in families, peer groups, cultural groups, gender groups, racial groups, religious groups, and social classes.

Speech-Language Pathology
Degree programs in speech-language pathology teach students how to diagnose and treat speech and language disorders, voice disorders, and swallowing disorders. The curriculum addresses word-finding issues, social communication problems, literacy challenges, and vocal quality.

Skills You’ll Learn

Students of deaf studies come away from their education with two distinct sets of skills. Because their curriculum includes American Sign Language, they come away from their education with the abilities associated with the process of learning a foreign language. Studies have shown that adult speakers of more than one language typically:

  • have higher general intelligence
  • are more creative
  • are more patient
  • are better listeners
  • have better concentration abilities
  • have greater mental flexibility
  • are better at planning and making decisions
  • score higher on reading, vocabulary, and math tests
  • are more aware of their surroundings
  • are more likely to understand different points of view
  • are less likely to fall for marketing ploys
  • are better at multi-tasking
  • have better memory and memorization skills

The portion of the deaf studies curriculum that focuses on the culture of the Deaf community provides students with competencies like these:

  • adaptability
  • appreciation for diversity
  • creativity
  • empathy
  • interpersonal skills
  • trust building

What Can You Do with a Deaf Studies Degree?

The settings listed below represent some of the areas in which graduates with a degree in Deaf Studies may be employed on a full or part time basis or contracted as a freelancer. Depending on their specific roles, their work may involve providing American Sign Language/English interpretation or speech-to-text instant translation and/or advocating for the Deaf and the hard-of-hearing.

  • Government departments, agencies, and institutions
  • Associations such as the American Association of the Deafblind and the National Association of the Deaf
  • Hospitals and public and private health and rehabilitation clinics
  • Mental health clinics
  • Social service agencies
  • Kindergartens, schools, colleges, and universities
  • Courts and other legal settings
  • Law Enforcement and Corrections
  • Community and arts organizations
  • Television and other media
  • Theater
  • Hearing and speech agencies
  • Speaker bureaus and agencies

In addition to practising their profession in the above environments, it is also possible for Deaf Studies graduates to consider undertaking further education to apply their skills in roles such as:


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