Deaf students need equity-literate educators. Dr. John Pirone is working to make that happen as the American Sign Language (ASL) Program Coordinator and lecturer at UVM, where he teaches a variety of ASL and Deaf studies courses.

Pirone is in the early stages of writing a paper to highlight how deaf students in grades K-12 who are educated in mainstream settings have historically encountered a wide variety of setbacks and damaging outcomes. Those outcomes include language delays, mental health issues, and poor academic skills.

The adverse effects are not attributable to the absence of hearing or English. Instead, Pirone says, it is because of the presence of audism—which is discrimination or prejudice against individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.

“We see a lot of audism in the K-12 settings,” says Pirone, who is Deaf. “One way to address some of the audism in K-12 is to look at conditions from an equity lens. From that framework, we can help teachers examine what they are doing —explore their own bias, privilege, and power; examine how they create conditions in the classroom; and ask themselves what it means to be hearing and what it means when a deaf student is placed in a phonocentric environment.”

Pirone explains that audism is pervasive and entrenched in mainstream K–12 settings. However, scant literature deals with audism in K–12 education settings or highlights how it should be addressed. His research article aims to expose the presence of audism in the domain of K–12 education and proposes Paul Gorski’s Equity Literacy Framework as a solution for addressing it.  

The Equity Literacy Framework prepares educators to see ways that access and opportunity are distributed unfairly across race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, language, and other factors.

According to Gorski’s website, the knowledge and skills of equity literacy cultivate in individuals and institutions four equity abilities: 

  • recognizing even the subtlest biases and inequities,
  • responding skillfully and equitably to biases and inequities in the immediate term,
  • redressing biases and inequities by understanding and addressing them at their institutional roots, and
  • sustaining equity efforts even in the face of discomfort or resistance.

By using this framework, Pirone says, educators can learn to acknowledge, respond to, and advocate against biases and inequities.  Once educators become equity-literate, deaf students can begin receiving an equitable education while achieving positive outcomes, such as full acquisition of ASL and English, strong academic skills, and a positive sense of self. 

“Teachers can become equity literate, which leads to breaking down systems that support those barriers,” Pirone says. “It’s not about learning ASL or emphasizing the importance of deaf culture—those are all good things, but they’re not enough. It’s not going to solve problems of power and privilege that are innately there in educational institutions.”

Helping UVM Students and Working to Create Change 

Pirone was the director of ASL and the Deaf Studies Program at the College of the Holy Cross before arriving at UVM in 2017. He currently teaches American Sign Language 1-6, as well as ASL Literature, and Understanding Deaf Culture. Students in his courses range from special education majors to nursing students. 

Alumnus John M. Zambarano (’19), who graduated with a degree in Art History and a minor in ASL, took multiple courses with Pirone. 

“John taught me to approach everything with an open mind. He focuses a lot on social justice and equity in his courses, and includes them in any way he can,” Zambarano says. “Specifically, in Understanding Deaf Culture and ASL Literature, I learned a lot about the intersectionality of deafness along with other identities. We saw poems and stories by deaf women of color, deaf indigenous people, and many other minoritized deaf communities. It gave me a holistic view of the deaf community and taught me about complexities that I could have never imagined.”

Meanwhile, Tal Saidon, a senior who is majoring in ASL and Deaf Studies, credits Pirone with helping her become a better signer and advocate. 

“John adapts himself to different learning styles, and is very accommodating when students need extra help,” Saidon says. “But the most important thing he has done for me is being a supportive mentor and giving me the knowledge and experience I need to be a strong ally of the deaf community.”

As an ally of the deaf community himself, Pirone hopes his upcoming work will improve K-12 education settings, break down barriers, and improve equity for deaf students.

“Sadly, ASL is a language that has been oppressed. Children aren’t exposed to it. That’s the motivation behind my doing this research,” Pirone says. “I’ve done a lot of advocacy in my career, but I don’t think it’s made the impact that I hoped for. I hope that writing about it will have an impact on the community at large.” 


Erica Houskeeper
John Pirone, teaching American Sign Language (ASL) at UVM.