When COVID-19 hit, it impacted every state and community across the country. Schools closing, economic uncertainty, limited resources, and the move to an online life for both work and play challenged deaf communities in a multitude of ways.

To help meet these challenges, the Engage for Change | state (EFC) program at the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes (NDC) brought leaders in education and vocational rehabilitation (VR) together to collaborate on successful strategies to achieve #DeafSuccess at the state level during these difficult times.

This year, leaders from 39 states participated in six regional online meetings. These meetings give each state the opportunity to ask questions, share information and resources, and problem solve as they work to build successful state-level programs.

These state meetings included:

  • Midwest: Leaders from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Oklahoma, Michigan, Nebraska, and Kansas met February 23 and May 20.

  • East Coast: Leaders from Alabama, South Carolina, Virginia, Florida, West Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Mississippi, and Arkansas met February 9 and May 20.

  • West and Southwest: Leaders from Utah, Alaska, Arizona, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Hawaii, New Mexico, Nevada, Washington, Idaho, and Texas met March 16 and May 18.

The Pivot to Online Support

The transition to online learning and service support has been challenging for schools and agencies, which ultimately had an impact on students and families. The rapid expansion of the pandemic led to months when limited accessibility and a lack of equitable services created barriers for both leaders and the communities they served.

As states pivoted to new online spaces and worked to quickly apply what they were learning from community feedback, examples of model strategies in supporting students and consumers online emerged.

For example, many state VR agencies saw fewer consumers and fewer referrals due to COVID-19. In Massachusetts, this resulted in leftover funding, which was then used to purchase laptops for clients who didn’t already own the technology needed to access online services. This resulted in many more clients engaging in training programs, making greater inroads than they thought possible even before the pandemic.

Similarly, the New Mexico School for the Deaf partnered with CSD Learns to provide free laptops, connectivity and STEM mentorship to students in rural areas and families who could not afford technology.

Providing accessible services online is another continuing challenge that state VR agencies face. During the meeting, several states shared strategies for offering Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS) online.

Oregon VR currently partners with two ASL fluent vendors who have been providing Pre-ETS services to Oregon students virtually. Alabama and Maryland reported using online platforms specifically designed to deliver Pre-ETS to youth. Neither of the platforms offer rich accessibility features, however, so VR counselors and service providers are working to make the content offered on the platforms as accessible as possible for deaf youth.

Transition events and job training programs, which help deaf youth work toward their post high school goals, are two other areas that are historically offered in-person yet have had to go virtual.

Maryland had success in offering an online job training to deaf youth and their families that provided insight into careers. Other states also went online, like Minnesota, who held a virtual transition fair that included mock interviews, meeting employers, and gaining understanding of career options.

Likewise, Montana normally offers an “enrichment weekend” where students go to the school for the deaf campus and learn about transition, job readiness, and explore how their likes and interests might fit with possible jobs. This year the event is virtual, and they have been able to expand and engage with kids who normally could not come and stay on campus.

Connecting to Role Models Virtually

Research shows that role modeling is important for deaf youths’ personal development, academic achievement, and employment. It is particularly important to help deaf youth see successful deaf professionals in a wide variety of careers through professional connections and job shadowing.

During COVID-19, these connections have been extremely difficult to make. Yet, several states have found innovative ways to successfully connect deaf youth with deaf professionals in an online environment.

Even before the pandemic, South Carolina led the way with their Transition Tuesday events. Each month, one successful deaf professional is interviewed and broadcast live at both the school for the deaf and mainstream schools. For one hour, the deaf professional tells their story, spotlights important aspects of their job, and answers questions from students.

Oregon recently built upon South Carolina’s success and is now featuring monthly deaf professional guest speakers who talk about their current job, their journey to get there, and answer questions from students. These sessions are recorded on Zoom and posted on Facebook.

Other states found new ways to facilitate interaction with role models as well. Virginia honored job shadow month in February by documenting the jobs and journeys of successful deaf professionals in Virginia. These videos were shown to students and can also be used again with future cohorts of deaf students.

The Wisconsin School for the Deaf also helped students explore jobs and opportunities by creating accessible videos of service agencies explaining their role in supporting students seeking a job, as well as employers talking about what they are looking for in employees.

To support states with these efforts, NDC offers #DeafSuccess media resources that can be used with students. These resources showcase role models for deaf youth and promote better understanding of the experiences of deaf people through photographs that briefly spotlight a collection of deaf professionals and videos that provide a deeper look at each deaf person’s journey.

Communication Within Agencies Breaks Down Silos

Feeling lost and isolated has been a problem throughout the pandemic, not only for students, but also for the professionals who serve them. When VR and education agencies recognized isolation and siloed work was acting as a barrier to serving deaf youth, several states found successful strategies for cross agency communication.

Before the pandemic, Colorado held in-person regional meetings to connect professionals who serve deaf students. Now they have shifted to virtual state-wide cross agency meetings and have had tremendous success in building connections that have never before existed. Speech language pathologists, audiologists, teachers of the deaf, state and charter schools for the deaf staff, and parents all are able to attend.

Through this more diverse collaboration, they have found an opportunity to collaborate at a much deeper level than they ever have previously. In December, students from across the state presented to this gathering, thanking them for their work and sharing with the group what worked well for them, what didn’t work, and what their goals for the future are.

Because of this success, Colorado is now looking to partner with neighboring states and create professional networks that collaborate on a wider level. This will hopefully be modeled by other states throughout the country to create a strong network of support and collaboration for #DeafSucces nationwide.

About EFC | state

Engage for Change | state brings leaders from state-level education and vocational rehabilitation agencies together to close gaps in education and employment for deaf people.

Through networks of shared leadership and peer support, state leaders tap NDC's support and resources to create an exchange of ideas and collaboration that would otherwise be impossible. Managed by State Engagement Coordinator Jen Higgins, Engage for Change | state is committed to systems change and promoting #DeafSuccess.