Redesigning How We Listen - Inclusion, Career Guidance and Deaf People


Mary Quirke is a research fellow in the School of Education at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, having completed her PhD research in Career Guidance, Universal Design, and Inclusion. Dr Conor Mc Guckin is a Professor of Educational Psychology in the School of Education, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. Conor convenes the Inclusion in Education and Society Research Group.

This blog shares the story of two projects and a learning journey that has contributed to a rethink about career guidance and inclusion. To ensure an easy read, career guidance will now be referred to as guidance.

A Bit of Background

To begin, it is important to reflect on inclusion in the context of guidance. Guidance theories have evolved over time, gaining recognition as a lifelong activity with influences from economies, technologies, geopolitics, and advances across education and societies.  

In relation to inclusion, it was the 1980’s before women were first considered and the mid 1990’s when cultural difference was factored in. More recently themes of culture, racism and ableism have been identified and explored. While guidance theories continue to evolve, it is worth stopping and contemplating on the origins and the thinking that informs our practice today. Does it continue to have an impact? Does it matter?

Why our View of Disability Matters

Whether we recognise it or not, disability frames our approaches while also influencing our actions and engagements. Our approaches can be considered exclusionary, with many negative assumptions in relation to ability, aspirations, and ambition unknowingly prevailing. While recognising this can sit uncomfortably, it is worth exploring further.

The medical model of disability for example, was a paternalistic approach that explicitly operated on the basis that the expert knows best. The focus was on ‘fitting’ disabled people into society, often resulting in low aspirations for learning and work. It is notable that this medical model was dominant when guidance theory was developing. 

There was a shift to the social model of disability in the 1980’s, with approaches across society evolving, including in education. Past segregationist disabling approaches were largely rejected - the result was that for many disabled people, separate education became a thing of the past.  

Workplaces also changed in response, as legislation became more inclusive and appreciative of skills and the intersectionality of people. Yet while learning and work evolved, guidance services for people with disabilities often remained focused on limited outcomes and challenged by what we now identify as ableist thinking.

The story of disability shifted again with Universal Design (UD) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) emerging and prompting a more proactive approach to inclusion. These approaches involve anticipating the needs of a wide intersectionality of people while the primary focus is on the needs of those with a disability.  

The Emergence of ‘Designing for Inclusion’

Inclusion is complicated – it is a multi-dimensional approach and demands that we both appreciate our past, while rethinking for more sustainable inclusive approaches going forward. Put simply, if we in guidance are to meet the demands of our learners, while appreciating the ongoing changes in relation to learning, work and life, we need to approach inclusion in a more proactive way and ‘design’ for it.  

Opportunity for Learning

This background and thinking influenced the two research projects mentioned at the start of this blog. The first project was a PhD journey that set out to explore inclusion in guidance from the perspective of people with a disability. The second was a project that explored ‘Deaf guidance’ – that is the experience of Deaf people with guidance. UD and UDL were considered in both projects.  

The PhD

The findings from the PhD identified that a deeper appreciation of guidance relationships will lend to the adoption of more sustainable inclusive approaches. It recognised that the relationship between the guidance professional and their client is powerful and it is the guidance professional that has the power to lead inclusive approaches.

Concepts of self-advocacy, self-efficacy, and other-efficacy need to be reconsidered together with the lived experience of disability across both education and work to inform career conversations.

It is important to share that the PhD learning was taking place as the following Deaf Career Project was being developed. This enabled a deeper appreciation of the experience of the Deaf community in the context of guidance.

The Deaf Career Project

This project with the Irish Deaf Society, explored guidance in relation to Deaf people by way of a literature review while also developing a mentoring service for the community.

The Deaf community continues to experience marginalisation across both education and employment and people who are not part of their community, Hearing people, disproportionately influence their learning and work choices. But they believe that if they are more included in career guidance relationships, they could change their career story.

In general, the Deaf community identify “Deaf” with a capital “D” (Deaf), use sign language as their primary language, and have an appreciation of Deaf culture. Those who experience partial or complete hearing loss, and do not use sign language identify as ‘deaf’ with a small ‘d’ (deaf).  

They identify as a linguistic and cultural minority and Irish Sign Language (ISL) is recognised as an official language in Ireland. Several other EU Members States also recognise their Sign Languages. This recognition is important when addressing barriers and challenges in inclusion, experienced for many years by Deaf communities.  

Career Guidance for Deaf People, Lessons Learned 

Interestingly, the first learning was that ‘Career’ was not represented in ISL and that ‘Career Guidance’ or ‘Guidance’ was more closely associated with counselling and therapeutic approaches. A more contemporary inclusive approach in guidance, adopting a UD approach, was identified as a meaningful way to facilitate Deaf people taking their rightful place in society. 

The literature review found that from N= 3900 papers, 12 records were deemed suitable. Arguably, not all of the 12 studies focused on guidance per se, but they did focus on topics relating to education, vocation, and career/work or transition planning for Deaf people.  

The 12 papers tended to have a more medical model focus, with little evidence of input from guidance professionals. It could be argued that this community continue to be framed as ‘disabled’ with the approaches seeking to ‘fix’ them and/or treat them differently enduring.

Emerging Themes for Practice

A need to develop self-advocacy skills has been identified as being as important as hard skills; that is where one can effectively communicate one’s strengths, needs, preferences, and interests. Guidance must challenge the idea that Deaf people do not have ability and so change their current experiences.

It was also identified that deaf people are part of a wider community, engaging with social support systems in various phases of life, including sign language interpreters and captioners all taking an important role. Guidance must engage with all involved with the Deaf community if it is to shift the discourse away from low expectations.  

This will also lend to an appreciation of the Deaf community, as a linguistic community with their own proud culture, a culture that must be appreciated in the context of guidance. Communication and language were identified as the main barrier for Deaf people when seeking employment opportunities and sign language should be considered as important as spoken language when building guidance relationships.  

What Can We Do Next…

In essence, we must be more responsive to the great diversity of people that seek to engage with us – including Deaf people. Can we presume that our approaches, based for the most part on theories from a bygone era, are fit for purpose? Do we need to reconsider our approaches as we develop more sustainable inclusion?  

Yes - the challenge is to become more dynamic, intentionally inclusive and evolve with an ever-changing diversity of learners and practitioners in a changing world of learning and work. We can apply UD and UDL approaches and design with intent. The alternative is that we continue to be ‘held back’ by past thinking and leave people, like the Deaf community, behind.

While we are engaged in the busy busy world of work, it can be too easy to miss the opportunity to reflect on our own approaches. Are we aware of what informs our practices? What of our own learning and work experiences? What do we know about terms such as Ablelism or Audism? And finally, are we ready to redesign our practices for all?

So - Are we ready to listen?

For a full list of references used in this article, click here.