Education of deaf and hearing-impaired persons needs changes

Teachers working with deaf students are not required to know the sign language. Neither the  curriculum, nor text books or exam sheets were adapted to the needs of those students. The NIK audit in 15 education facilities shows that the education system in 2019-2022 did not meet diverse requirements of students with the hearing disability, although the Polish Constitution and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities guarantee common and equal access to education to students with hearing problems.

The Polish Sign Language (from Polish: PJM), considered by deaf persons as their first and natural language, was not a school subject. Thus, deaf students did not learn “Polish for deaf persons” and so they could not develop the language proficiency essential to function in the society. But still they had to cover the same curriculum as their hearing peers. That was even more difficult as about 60% of teachers and pedagogues in the audited special education facilities and about 85% in inclusive schools did not know the sign language at all or their proficiency was insufficient for effective communication. It means that teachers communicated with deaf children in a language that was foreign to them. In accordance with the law, teachers working with deaf and hearing-impaired persons are required to master the sign language only at an elementary level.

Also, textbooks, instructions and questions in part of external exams were not tailored to the needs of students hard of hearing. According to the headmasters of the audited schools, a student often knows the correct answer to an exam question but he or she cannot decode the question itself.

The NIK audit revealed that even general-access websites of most audited schools were not tailored to the needs of hearing-impaired persons, despite the legal obligation. According to the law, from September 2019, each public institution should place a video in the Polish Sign Language on its website, including information on the scope of its activity.

For many years now, communities and organisations associated with the deaf community have underlined that the education system is incompatible with their needs and capabilities. This audit is NIK’s response to those signals. In relation to the audit results NIK has recommended that the Minister of Education and Science start works to recognise the Polish sign language as official in the education of deaf and hearing-impaired students and to change the law to make sure the education system is tailored to their needs.

NIK audited 15 schools and surveyed 24 education facilities in school years: 2019/2020, 2020/2021 and 2021/2022.

Polish as a foreign language for deaf students

For deaf children Polish language which they do not hear is a foreign language. Teachers who speak without using the Polish sign language have no contact with such children.

Students communicating in the Polish Sign Language do not understand the so-called Signed Polish. Teachers using this language speak Polish and use the sign language at the same time. Deaf students understand only words, without comprising the whole utterance made by the teacher.

PJM or Polish Sign Language – a sign language used by deaf persons in Poland. It is their natural language of communication, with its own grammatical structure, separate from the Polish language; it is the first language of a child whose both parents are deaf.

SJM or Signed Polish – an artificial system which is composed of the spoken Polish and the sign language; it comes directly from the Polish phonic language.

In school year 2021/2022 (as of 30 September 2021), in education facilities there were 15 thousand students with the hearing disability in total, nationwide. About 86% of them were hearing-impaired persons who – despite the hearing damage – attended the same school as their hearing peers. Deaf students who used the sign language – also while learning - made up approx. 14%.

NIK audited 15 schools, including special education and childcare facilities, inclusive schools and schools with inclusive classes. At the end of September 2021, there were 949 students with the hearing disability in total, of whom more than half (541) were deaf persons. In case of schools surveyed by NIK, hearing-impaired students (520) represented more than half of 880 students with the hearing disability.

The education law does not specify which sign language – the Polish Sign Language or the Signed Polish – should be taught at schools. In three audited schools for deaf and hearing-impaired persons, students learnt only PJM, in two – only SJM, and in two others – PJM or SJM. However, the sign language was not used in inclusive schools and in schools with inclusive classes. In such facilities surveyed by NIK, student did not learn PJM at all and learnt SJM only in 0.07%.

It means that because of potential communication problems, students knowing only the sign language did not benefit from inclusive education to the same extent as others. It was the case despite the fact that Poland was obliged to provide inclusive education to deaf students under the Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons.

Even in special schools not all teachers know the sign language

The majority of education workers in the audited schools were properly educated to work with deaf and hearing-impaired students. The main problem, though, was that they did not know the sign language. The law (except for provisions effective from 2019) does not specify the language (PJM, SJM) or the language proficiency of teachers working with students with the hearing disability. There was no minimal, uniform standard of language or communication skills enabling work with deaf students.

In 15 schools covered by the study, less than 40% of 674 teachers declared that they knew PJM (250 persons in special schools and 11 persons in inclusive schools or classes) and about 35% said they could use SJM (206 persons in special schools and 31 persons in inclusive schools or classes). In the surveyed facilities only about 20% of teachers knew PJM and about 34% used SJM.

Parents of a student from one of the audited schools transferred their son to the Institute for the Deaf, 300 km distant from their place of living. The reason was their family could not communicate with school teachers in the sign language. On the other hand, the Institute provides education only in PJM.

The audit revealed that 9 of 10 audited special schools hired deaf or hearing-impaired persons – in total 71 education workers and 21 employees in other positions. Out of five inclusive schools, a teacher hard of hearing worked only in one, and in another there was only one hearing-impaired person who was not an education worker.

For deaf students the inability to communicate with teachers who do not know the sign language is not the only problem. A big issue is the lack of text books translated into PJM.

The teachers do not use textbooks prepared by the Ministry of Education and Science. Headmasters of the audited schools explain that the textbooks were translated into pictograms which deaf persons do not use. In their everyday education work teachers use videos available in the Internet and in the Education Information System. They also prepare and translate similar materials by themselves.

Poor results of written exams, best results in foreign languages

In the audited period, nearly 79% students took the written primary school final exam in the schools audited by NIK. Better results were achieved by deaf and hearing-impaired students from inclusive schools and classes than by students from schools for the deaf.

It turns out that the external exam is based on a sheet which is adjusted to persons hard of hearing, not prepared specifically for them. It means that students are left on their own with the written Polish, both in case of the Polish and maths exam. The audit revealed that the procedures binding in external exams do not allow translating instructions or texts found on exam sheets into the sign language or any other alternative means of communication.

In case of the GCSE, students hard of hearing have more time (by half an hour) to write it but a deaf education specialist present at the GCSE exam is allowed only to translate instructions for tasks into the sign language, not their content. The headmasters of the audited schools admitted that sheets for the Polish and English GCSE exams were created specifically for deaf students and corresponded with the capabilities of students taking the GCSE exam which was reflected in satisfactory exam results.

In the audited period the average of 70% students took the GCSE exam in the audited schools. They achieved the best results in foreign language exams. According to the headmasters of the audited schools, the maths exam is the most difficult for deaf students because the  curriculum is not adjusted to their needs and capabilities.

In the audited period most students in the audited schools (over 80%) took vocational exams. They also achieved much better results than in case of the primary school final exams and GCSE exams, especially in case of practical exams. Less than 30% of deaf and hearing-impaired persons in the audited facilities received the professional qualification certificate, whereas nationwide it was over 76%.

According to the headmasters, to-date changes to the principles and conditions of passing external exams have not been tailored to the needs and capabilities of students with the hearing disability, especially the ones who do not know Polish very well.

The headmasters stand in a position that the exam instructions and tasks absolutely need to be translated into the sign language.

The audit findings indicated that the external exam pass rate was higher in schools where one sign language was taught than in schools where both PJM and SJM were taught. That is why, providing bilingual education to deaf students and introducing the sign language next to the Polish language to the curriculum requires an indication which sign language will be used. This would not only eliminate communication issues but also ensure standardisation of assessment of the language proficiency levels, both in students and teachers.


In order to fully execute the right of students with the hearing disability to education without discrimination and on an equal footing, NIK has the following recommendations for the Minister of Education and Science:

  • to start works on implementing legal solutions tailoring the education system to the needs of deaf and hearing-impaired students, such as:
    • to create the curriculum for bilingual education of deaf students separating two subjects: the sign language and the Polish language for deaf persons,
    • to make the sign language obligatory for teachers involved in the education of children and youth with the hearing disability, upon defining the minimum uniform standard of language proficiency levels enabling communication and work in the sign language with deaf students;
  • to provide schools with text books translated into the sign language and tailored to deaf persons’ needs for all education stages;
  • to start consultations and works, with the involvement of communities of persons with the hearing disability, academic communities and representatives of schools for deaf and hearing-impaired students, including also deaf students on:
    • further tailoring of the exam instructions and tasks to the needs of students with the hearing disability, to make sure they take full account of their language proficiency;
    • developing and implementing system solutions to encourage persons with the hearing disability to hire deaf and hearing-impaired students,
    • recognising the Polish Sign Language as binding in the education of deaf and hearing-impaired students.


Article informations

Date of creation:
03 January 2023 12:26
Date of publication:
03 January 2023 12:26
Published by:
Marta Połczyńska
Date of last change:
03 January 2023 12:26
Last modified by:
Marta Połczyńska
Teacher communicating with female student in sign language © Adobe Stock

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