Language Considerations for Deaf Students Studying in the U.S

Many people standing around exhibit tables talking and using sign language.
People sometimes ask us about language requirements that deaf students must meet in order to get admitted to a U.S. university.

It is highly likely that deaf international students will achieve proficiency in not one but two languages when they come to study in the U.S. Those are English and American Sign Language (ASL). 

In the case of English, all students from non-native English speaking countries must demonstrate the same level of proficiency to receive admission for their academic studies at a U.S. university or college. This also includes students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

What about American Sign Language? Though not required, NCDE strongly recommends that students learn ASL. Knowing ASL means they will have access to interpreter services, and be able to integrate more easily in U.S. Deaf culture.

Since many deaf or hard of hearing people lack access to language study in their home countries, they might not be able to benefit from local English schools like hearing students. Use of their native language might mostly be concentrated in reading and writing. 

It is important for colleges and universities to understand their role in supporting and advising international deaf students and their family and friends about the necessary steps they must take to linguistically prepare.

This includes 2 questions:

  1. How should students sharpen their English and ASL when they may not have access to the best in-country resources for language aquisition?
  2. Once that has been accomplished, how do the students get through the standardized test wall necessary for them to demonstrate their proficiency in English?

Standardized tests

The last question is quite easy, because the administrators of the English placement exams,  IELTS and the TOEFL, offer a variety of reasonable accommodations. For example, they can exempt deaf individuals from taking the spoken and listening sections. If you think about it this makes a lot of sense. Colleges really just want to know that students possess enough English to be successful in their classes. They can demonstrate this through reading and writing. Oral English is not necessary, because students can access classroom lectures and discussions with the support of ASL interpreters or Communication Access Real-Time Translation (CART) services. 

One of the top concerns of prospective deaf international students has to do with how they will pass the TOEFL or IELTS not being able to speak or hear. It is important to make sure that they are educated about their rights to reasonable accommodations both during their application and throughout their degree program or certificate. This includes the right to have oral sections of the TOEFL or IELTS omitted.

Learning English

For the reasons mentioned earlier, learning English might be the biggest challenge for international deaf students to overcome. The first step they can take is to build up their English proficiency at home. These resources can get them started.

Some students may have the option to take English courses in the United States. This can be particularly beneficial because of the availability of programs which couple instruction in English with ASL. This kind of learning model, which tailor's curriculum for the particular learning styles of Deaf and hard of hearing students, can spare students the extra difficulty of learning a foreign language through an interpreter. 

Here are some examples of English programs in the United States for Deaf students. Keep in mind that funding for these opportunities is extremely competitive. Since they are targeted at individuals who may have little or no English proficiency to start with, international students may still need to do extra work to adapt to college-level English. Colleges should also consider alternative ways to the GRE that Deaf students might demonstrate academic preparedness.

  • Gallaudet University’s English Language Institute: The English Language Institute (ELI) is a subunit of the Department of World Languages and Cultures. ELI provides full-time instruction in English as a Second Language (ESL), American Sign Language (ASL), and cross-cultural studies to international and American deaf and hard of hearing adults. Intensive study, throughout the academic year (late August to mid-May), helps students become proficient in English in order to qualify for admission to Gallaudet or another university in the United States. This program also enhances their employment potential.
  • Ohlone College's Deaf Preparatory Program

Learn ASL

Deaf students from other countries will definitely have plenty of opportunities to learn ASL before and during their degree program. They can study ASL online, attend an immersion course at a place like Gallaudet University or simply learn on the go. Some programs allow deaf students to arrive early, so that they can get a head start with learning ASL. The Mandela Washington Fellowship of the Department of State funded Young African Leaders Initiative established a partnership with Gallaudet University to offer deaf fellows a 10-day Pre-Institute in American Deaf culture and ASL.

International students also find it helpful to use both ASL interpreters and CART in their classes. This way they can see what is being said in English and square that with the sign language interpretation. They can go back to using either CART or ASL once their ASL improves. Some disability resource centers might restrict deaf students to only using either interpreters or CART, so exceptions should be made for international students as they learn ASL.

Here are some other resources for studying ASL that you could share with students:


Though deaf students from other countries may experience trepidation about whether they will be able to demonstrate sufficient English proficiency to be admitted to a U.S. college, it is possible for them to do so. While students will not be tested on ASL, it is strongly recommended in order to integrate into deaf communities and utilize the full range of reasonable accommodations available to facilitate communication access. There are a variety of online and some in-person resources for students to develop their English and ASL skills. 

Have you had an experience taking the TOEFL or IELTS as a deaf student, or are you a professional who has guided in international student through the process of applying to study in the United States? clearinghouse [at] (Please get in touch to share your story).