Ernest Hairston was born and raised in West Virginia, where he attended the West Virginia School for the Colored Deaf and Blind. In 1954, following the Supreme Court’s landmark antisegregation ruling, he transferred to the West Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind. He graduated from Gallaudet College in 1961 with a bachelor’s degree in Education and began his teaching career. He earned his Master’s in Administration and Supervision at California State University Northridge (CSUN) and later began working with the U.S. Office of Education's Bureau of Education for the Handicapped (now Office of Special Education Programs). Dr. Hairston was promoted to Chief of the Captioning and Adaptation Branch of OSEP. He earned his Ph.D. in Special Education Administration from Gallaudet University in 1994.
Dr. Hairston also worked as an Education Program Specialist within the United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education Research to Practice Division, were he served as the agency expert and authority in the areas of educational media and media technology. Currently he is a Project Manager with the U.S. Department of Education and a Described and Captioned Media Program (DCMP) Project Officer. Dr. Hairston has participated in and worked with the Deaf community in many roles over the years. He has provided valuable guidance to various institutions and organizations including the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), and the National Black Deaf Advocates (NBDA) of which he was a founding member and has been a driving force. In 2008, Dr. Hairston served on the Board of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Government (DHHG). He now serves on the Board of trustees for the Maryland School for the Deaf. Along with Linwood Smith, Dr. Hairston co-authored the book Black and Deaf in America: Are We That Different.