Benefits of Social Capital in Adolescents with Hearing Loss : The Hearing Journal

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Social Capital

Benefits of Social Capital in Adolescents with Hearing Loss

Byatt, Timothy J.

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The Hearing Journal 72(11):p 30,32, November 2019. | DOI: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000612584.73866.40
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Adolescents who are deaf or hard of hearing (DHH) in countries such as Australia and the United States now have access to improved assistive hearing technology, widespread implementation of early hearing screening programs, and early intervention.1,2 These advances have led to better speech and language in comparison to earlier generations.3,4 While these improved outcomes are to be celebrated, the gains are not always apparent in other domains such as social communication5 and psychosocial development.6 Prioritizing the development of social capital in this population presents opportunities to improve a wide range of outcomes. This review is an adaptation of a published systematic review7 that explored contemporary social capital literature relating to adults and adolescents who are DHH and adolescents with other types of disability. The studies discussed in this article indicate that high reserves of social capital can lead to improved outcomes in areas such as inclusion, diversity, identity formation, and quality of life for adolescents who are DHH.

FU1 Hearing loss, disability, social capital.


Similar to the more tangible concept of economic capital, social capital is an established construct that recognizes the value of social networks in a similar manner.8 According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, some of the benefits of social capital include greater societal diversity and participation as well as knowledge sharing.9 Social capital is often measured using trust, reciprocity,10 and shared norms.11 Bourdieu12 theorized that social capital intersects with cultural and economic capital to protect and perpetuate the resources of the dominant class. Cultural capital includes knowing how to dress and talk appropriately in different contexts, and may be represented by job titles and tertiary qualifications.


The development of social capital has been demonstrated to have positive psychosocial and well-being benefits in populations that are disadvantaged13 and in adults with disabilities.14 Individuals who are DHH have high rates of documented mental illness,15 and developing social capital may offer a way to improve these outcomes. Wong, Ching, Whitfield, and Duncan found a positive low association between social capital and a range of psychosocial outcomes, including social competence and loneliness.16


Social capital, as measured by network size, was shown to have a positive effect on the quality of life among middle-aged to older Austrian Deaf club members.17 The authors demonstrated that network size was positively associated with self-efficacy, and that those club members with a higher sense of self-efficacy also reported a better quality of life. Furthermore, the authors determined that communication skills and social networks acted as functional equivalents. Participants with lower communicative competence were able to benefit more in terms of self-efficacy from larger social networks compared with those with higher language scores and larger networks. This exciting result, if replicated in other populations, indicates that social capital may offer a way to boost personal resources such as self-efficacy and communication when they are otherwise diminished.

A similar quality-of-life benefit was found in a study that measured social acceptance and quality of life before and after a disability-specific camp attended by 46 children and adolescents who are DHH.18 The participants’ quality of life was found to be significantly higher at the end of the camp than before the camp. The authors did not specifically measure social capital; rather, a social capital framework was used to describe the participants’ increased social capital that led to better outcomes, such as an increase in reciprocal relationships, development of trust, and feeling included in conversations in the camp.


Individuals with a disability also benefit from the social capital of their parents, as seen in a study on the outcomes of three individuals with a disability in the Czech Republic, Ireland, and Spain.19 Through biographical interviews, the young participants reported how they were able to achieve positive outcomes through their parents’ advocacy for their rights to educational access and efforts to raise teachers’ and other decision-makers’ expectations about what their children could achieve. The authors of this study noted that social capital and resilience stimulate each other, which can be seen in situations where resilience is required and enabled through social capital resources.

The role of parental social and cultural capital was further confirmed in a study of 27 parents of children with special needs.20 Parents who used educational jargon were able to effectively advocate for their children's special education needs. Some parents even utilized social capital by acquiring information from teachers through informal social connections with the school staff. Families in this study who may have been perceived to be from the dominant class based on their racial and cultural backgrounds were not always successful in advocating for their children's educational needs. This may be seen as a practical outworking of the way that disability reduces cultural and social capital and subsequent opportunities for children with a disability and their families. An example can be seen in the unequal relationships between the educational staff and the parents of children with disabilities and in the way that parents were unable to consistently use their social and cultural capital to overcome barriers to educational opportunities.20


Inclusion was identified as a positive outcome of social capital in a study of a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning community involving college students with a disability.21 The participants indicated that the learning community generated social support through friendships and academic support networks, and that this subsequently led to a greater sharing of knowledge and collective support within the group. Viewed through a social capital lens, this can be seen as a conversion of social capital into cultural capital that resulted in efficient knowledge sharing. The authors equated the group's collective competence with the individual self-efficacy. This is an example of how social capital can generate outcomes that may be available to all group members.

Diversity, defined by an acceptance and understanding of individuals and groups different from oneself, is another outcome generated through social capital. Mainstream students were seen to transform from having a deficit model perspective of students with a disability to a more nuanced understanding of these students’ needs through a guided discussion study.22 This study demonstrates the value of increased bridging social capital represented by access to groups that are different from one's own group, such as the dominant group of students without disabilities in a school. This was achieved by the students’ understanding the needs of students with disabilities and formulating positive ways to include them in their classes.

Similarly, understanding students with diverse learning needs was a social capital-related outcome in a series of facilitated discussions between employers, parents, and other stakeholders.23 The group was able to work together to solve obstacles to inclusion, such as difficulty accessing transportation, which can be viewed as an activation of social capital.


Deaf identity is a nuanced concept for adolescents who are DHH, and may be one of a number of factors that contribute to identity formation.24 Adolescents may develop their identity from their shared disability status, and the allocation and use of shared spaces, such as segregated classrooms, may impact this identity perception.25 Identity formation is further complicated by some adolescents avoiding identities that include disability. This can be seen in a case study participant viewing identity involving disability as “complex and pejorative.”26

Role models contribute to identity formation and are seen to have a part to play in navigating challenging issues that students who are DHH may encounter, such as communication difficulties.24 This may be viewed as the role models facilitating social capital opportunities that adolescents who are DHH may not have access to through their own limited social capital.24

A liminality framework was used to describe how students who are DHH face increased risk in relation to negative outcomes such as social isolation and sense of identity.18 Liminality is an anthropological term that describes how certain groups may be close to dominant groups but not fully included or accepted within those groups. This may apply to adolescents who are DHH, and gives weight to the authors’ study that detailed how the participants developed a positive identity within the safe and supportive environment of the disability-specific camp, which is a social capital-related outcome.18

Social capital is a construct that holds much promise in facilitating practical well-being and inclusion outcomes for adolescents who are DHH. The studies discussed in this review describe how social capital can lead to improved outcomes such as inclusion, diversity, and better quality of life. Additionally, social capital offers a pathway to improve traditional outcomes such as language and self-efficacy. More research is required to confirm these preliminary findings in adolescents who are DHH using validated social capital instruments and research that gives a voice to the participants. The role of inclusion and identity merits further investigation in relation to social capital formation.

Acknowledgement: The author would like to thank Dr. Jill Duncan and Dr. Kerry Dally for their generous advice relating to an earlier manuscript of this paper.


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