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Potential maximisation: Risk and Resilience

Whether deaf or hearing, proactive life skills are crucial for our everyday living.  But what skills do individuals living with deafness use to maximise their social and career potential? Are these skills similar or different to people without deafness?  

Background Research

I first explored these questions in my autobiography "Neither-Nor: A Young Australian's Experience with Deafness" (2007). This documented some deafness-specific challenges experienced by others and myself. Completed in 2009, my doctorate research at the University of Melbourne went further. It investigated how professionals living with deafness maximised their potential using life skills.

My research was with 49 participants including 30 adults who are deaf and 19 adults without a disability from all over the world. All had maximised their career potential. They were journalists, fashion designers, nurses, town planners, educators, dentists, lawyers, accountants, retail staff, information technology professionals and academics.

My research used a framework from a groundbreaking American study by Reiff, Gerber and Ginsberg (1995) at McDaniel College. Their participants were professionals with a learning disability. Their framework has eight general life skills. These skills define how a person can maximise their potential with a disability. My research revealed an additional ninth theme - Potential Maximisation: the outcome of successfully executing the eight themes.

The research findings were remarkable. The information gathered from participants was rich and detailed. Their skills were practical and many. Above all, there were two main findings. First, the participants who are deaf used similar or identical thinking strategies and life skills as the participants without deafness. Secondly, the participants who are deaf used additional skills to master deafness-related social challenges. All of these skills required competence with risk and resilience. Taking strategic risks enable us to learn about our own abilities and to understand the world around us. With resilience we gradually master the life skills necessary to maximise our potential.

Real-Life Application

Living with deafness has required that I develop these specialised life skills. But until now, a framework of practical life skills for living with deafness has been missing. We now understand how people who are deaf can maximise their social and career potential. This newfound knowledge will be explained in my forthcoming column. It is designed for parents, clinicians and educators, and individuals who are deaf. Real-life scenarios and practical examples of these themes will be provided. The purpose of this article, however, is to outline the framework that we will be exploring over the next several months: 

Control - Control is empowerment and the mastery of life skills over time and in given circumstances. This column will show how to identify issues you can and cannot control. Strategies will also be outlined.

Desire - Desire is putting motivation into action. This column will outline how to sensibly recognise and practice some attributes of Desire.

Goal Orientation - Goal Orientation is the purposeful pursuit of short or long term goals. Pre-preparedness is a main theme. This column will show how Goal Orientation can operate in a daily situation. Long-term career planning will also be discussed.

Reframing - Reframing is purposefully challenging negative thought processes. This column will show how to recognise negative beliefs and reframe these in a positive manner. Reframing creates positive behavioural outcomes.

Persistence - Persistence is dealing with adversity. This column will explain how persistence can be put into action. Skills of self-advocacy, assertiveness and having back-up conversational strategies are provided.

Goodness of Fit - Goodness of Fit involves choosing social environments that suit personal strengths. It is also about avoiding or minimising entry into settings where success is unlikely.

Learned Creativity - Learned Creativity involves the creative use of learned skills. This column will demonstrate a series of tactics related to captioned TV/DVD and text-based communications (e.g., email and text messages). These improve conversational skills, including humour.

Social Ecologies - Social Ecologies are social networks. This column will explain how individuals with deafness can employ the assistance of hearing peers without being overly dependent.

Potential Maximisation - An individual's ability to put all these eight themes into action determines the maximisation of their potential. This final column will provide a real-life scenario showing all of the eight themes in action.

As my research has shown, the degree of deafness has nothing to do with thinking strategies or behavioral outcomes (Jacobs, 2009). Some people who are deaf have succeeded in areas that many people without disabilities have not. Examples are Marlee Maitlin, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Ludwig van Beethoven, Francisco Goya, Howard Hughes, Annie Jump Cannon, John Howard, and Pierre Gorman.

Whether deaf or hearing, potential maximisation depends on using thinking strategies and social skills to create positive social and professional outcomes. The refusal to take risks and the lack of resilience severely impairs potential.

Successful people living with deafness also use specific skills to master deafness-related difficulties. My work has been to discover and understand how these skills work and my expertise offers a blend of research and personal experience.

Each of the coming nine columns will end with an exercise, a question and a quote. These are designed to expand your knowledge of proactive deafness-specific life skills. Keep all columns, backtrack if need be. All themes relate to each other. And all activities can be practiced and mastered.

Below is a question, exercise and quote related to the next column on Control

Question: Has there been a recent unpleasant incident(s) related to your or your child's deafness? Exercise:

Read an autobiography of a person who is deaf. Pay attention to social and career issues. Suggestions include "Voices of the Oral Deaf" by Jim Reisler, "The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa" by Josh Swiller, and "Deafness: An Autobiography" by David Wright.

"It may seem a paradox, but the deaf person - so far from being liable to be left out - is often in a strong position psychologically...though this is only true of those who have dominated, not merely accepted, the disability. Every disability offers the same alternative: Either it dominates you or you dominate it...once a disability has been dominated it ceases, truly, to be a disability but becomes an asset, a weapon." David Wright, Deafness: An Autobiography. (1994). New York, NY: Harper Perennial Publishing.  

Next: Attributes of control


  • Jacobs, P.G. (2009). The psychosocial attributes and tactics of vocationally and socially successful who are deaf: A Pragmatist study. Doctorate dissertation. University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia.
  • Jacobs, P. G. (2007). Neither-Nor: A young Australian's experience of deafness. Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press.
  • Reiff, H.B., Ginsberg, R., & Gerber, P.J. (1995). New perspectives on teaching from successful adults with learning disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 16(1), 29-37.


The contents of these columns are copyright of Dr. Paul Jacobs (PhD). All rights reserved. Reproduction of all or any substantial part of the contents in any form is prohibited. No part of Dr Paul Jacobs' material on Potential Maximisation may be distributed or copied for any commercial purpose without expressed approval by the author.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this website is not intended as a substitute for independent professional advice.

11-Jun-2021 4:32 PM (AEST)