Jackie Kojima
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Nestled in a residential neighborhood in Kapahulu just a hop away from the Waikïkï Fire Station, Hawai‘i School for the Deaf and Blind (HSDB) is a beacon of hope for the Deaf community.

Picture this: You are 10 years old, and for the last decade, you have not been able to communicate with others around you. You cannot raise your hand and tell your teacher you are confused; you cannot join in with the other kids at school, chatting about the newest cartoon or song; you cannot even fully articulate to your parents why you are happy or sad.

This is not an imaginary situation; this is the reality for many Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing keiki in Hawai‘i. It is tricky to pin down the exact number of Deaf individuals in Hawai‘i; however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that two to three of every 1,000 children born in the U.S. have a detectable level of hearing loss.

According to a study by Mitchell and Karchmer (2004), more than 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents. Research cited by the National Association of the Deaf shows that 70% of these Deaf, Deaf-Blind, Deaf Disabled and Hard-of-Hearing children lack access to language, meaning their parents are not able to communicate in a visual language, such as American Sign Language.

Dr. Angel Ramos, principal at Hawaiʻi School for the Deaf and Blind, pictured at the school’s Kapahulu campus. Ramos was the first Deaf male principal at HSDB, serving from 2016 to 2019. (Photo courtesy of Angel Ramos)
Dr. Angel Ramos, principal at Hawaiʻi School for the Deaf and Blind, pictured at the school’s Kapahulu campus. Ramos was the first Deaf male principal at HSDB, serving from 2016 to 2019. (Photo courtesy of Angel Ramos)

“When you’re not able to communicate with parents, or you’re not able to communicate with anyone for that manner, you get frustrated,” said Dr. Angel Ramos, principal at Hawai‘i School for the Deaf and Blind. “What do you do? You misbehave … Then they misbehave at school, and [the school] thinks the students are troublemakers. And they’re not. They’re just telling you, ‘I need help. I want to communicate.’”

Throughout its 109-year history, Hawai‘i School for the Deaf and Blind has taught individuals who are Deaf, Blind and Deaf-Blind, as well as students with cognitive challenges. Originally named The School for the Defectives in 1914, HSDB has come a long way since its beginnings. HSDB currently enrolls 56 students who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing at the elementary, middle school and high school levels. Some students have visual challenges, but HSDB no longer teaches Deaf-Blind students. The teacher-student ratio is 1-to-4, with an average class size of five students.

As part of the Department of Education, HSDB provides free tuition for students and follows the DOE’s Common Core standards and graduation requirements. To enroll a child at HSDB, families must first enroll their child in their appropriate district’s public school first. If the child starts struggling or falling behind in class, the school can prepare an Individualized Education Plan and refer the child to HSDB. Unfortunately, this process can take up to several years, further delaying the child’s academic progress. Some students enter HSDB lacking the basic skills to sign ASL, read or write.

“Every single one of the students who come to HSDB is two or three grades behind their hearing peers,” Ramos said. “Our main goal is to improve the reading and writing skills of our students. This year, all of our high school students are taking two to three English classes. We are also developing our Career and Technical Education program as not all students are interested in pursuing a postsecondary education,” Ramos said in a written correspondence.

HSDB practices bilingual communication, meaning that students are expected to master both English and ASL, their first language. HSDB teachers communicate with students in ASL; speech is not used. Ramos, who earned his doctorate degree at Gallaudet University, a private university in Washington, D.C. for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, hopes that all HSDB students gain the skills and knowledge to pursue college or a well-paying job by the time they graduate. Ramos wants every HSDB student to receive a high school diploma rather than a certificate of attendance, if possible, since a certificate of attendance implies that the student did not complete the necessary graduation requirements. Fortunately, since each student has an Individualized Education Plan, students who are not quite ready to graduate may continue attending HSDB until they are 21 years old.

“They come back for another senior year, and another senior year … as long as it takes to get them the reading skills they need, or the job skills they need,” Ramos said.

Another unique facet of HSDB is the on-campus residential program. Currently there are 18 students living in the dorms, supervised by nine houseparents. The residential program is free for students from the neighbor islands 8 years old or older. Students must fly home every Friday afternoon and come back on Sunday evening, giving them an opportunity to stay connected with their family. HSDB covers the cost of airfare, ground transportation, and dinners for neighbor island students. O‘ahu students who live far from campus are also able to apply to live in dorms as space permits. All students who live in the dorms can participate in HSDB’s after school program, where they can receive further enrichment and socialization time with their peers.


There are several public schools throughout the state that offer educational services for Deaf students in a setting where they are taught alongside hearing students. Ramos believes that HSDB truly lives up to its motto as “The Place to Be” and that Deaf students can thrive in a caring community that understands them, surrounded by Deaf mentors.

In addition to dealing with academic difficulties, Deaf students may face social exclusion and isolation in a mainstream school. Colleen Cidade, an educational assistant who has been with HSDB for 27 years, recalls the social struggles and misconceptions of growing up deaf.

“I had no problems reading lips – that’s what I thought. But that’s wrong. There were so many misunderstandings,” Cidade said. When Cidade had to ask questions to clarify what her friends were saying, they laughed at her.

“It took away my self-esteem. So I think to add to what you can tell readers – Many think [being] Deaf is reading lips. But [it’s] not…That’s a myth.”

At HSDB, students communicate directly with school staff and fellow students without needing an interpreter. Ramos, the vice principal, the counselor, teachers, the school nurse, educational assistants, and houseparents communicate in ASL, allowing for open communication between all parties, and empowering students to be independent.

“They come here and it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, my people! I can communicate with everybody. I don’t need an interpreter.’ They’re so happy here,” Ramos said.

In the same token, teachers and administrators can discipline students immediately and effectively without any barriers.

“If students misbehave, they know they have to see me, and I will talk to them directly,” Ramos said.

A welcoming, painted bench outside the main office encapsulates the palpable aloha spirit on campus. (Photo courtesy of Jackie Kojima)
A welcoming, painted bench outside the main office encapsulates the palpable aloha spirit on campus. (Photo courtesy of Jackie Kojima)

HSDB students are encouraged to participate and take leadership roles in activities such as Student Body Government, LEGO and Robotics teams, and eSports. HSDB students can also participate in sports such as football, volleyball and basketball, thanks to a partnership with Kalani High School. Currently, there are two HSDB students on Kalani’s Varsity Football team.

When asked about her favorite part about attending HSDB, one elementary school student we spoke with said, “I love coming to be with my friends and playing with my friends, it’s so much fun! I come to school here for drawing, playing, having friends – I really cherish everybody here.”

Close-Knit Community

According to Ramos, it can be difficult for the Deaf community to receive timely information during disasters such as the Lāhainā wildfires. Videos from governmental or news agencies may not contain closed captions. HSDB maintains close ties with Maui Deaf Friends, the only organization for Deaf people on Maui. On Monday, Aug. 14, students at HSDB started a fundraiser to gather essential supplies such as toothpaste, toothbrushes, baby diapers and shampoo. On Thursday, Aug. 17, Ramos, along with his wife, a few houseparents and students traveled to Maui to deliver the supplies to the Deaf community.

When talking about what people can do to support the Deaf community, the conversation must move beyond monetary donations.

Misconceptions perpetuated by medical professionals may dissuade families from learning ASL. For instance, families may be led to believe that their Deaf child should not be exposed to visual language at all, in fear that their speech development will be hindered. HSDB seeks to combat this communication gap by offering free ASL classes for parents via on-campus or online classes, taught by a parent coordinator.

“The best thing that the community can do is one, learn sign language; and two, treat us as equals. A lot of times, hearing people think they are better than us, just because they can hear and we cannot. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Ramos said. “We don’t use the word ‘hearing impaired’ anymore…The word ‘impaired’ means there’s something wrong with us. There’s nothing impaired about us.”

Hawai‘i School for the Deaf and Blind is located at 3440 Lē‘ahi Ave. To learn more about HSDB, visit hsdb.k12.hi.us. Visit Maui Deaf Friends Wildfire Support’s page on GoFundMe to learn more about the fundraiser.

Jackie Kojima works as an eighth-grade Japanese teacher at ‘Iolani School and is a freelance writer. A Gosei, she developed a passion for studying Japanese in her middle school years. In her free time she enjoys singing, listening to podcasts and going on walks.


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