The Journal: Best Practices: LEO Encounters with the Deaf

Jul 11, 2017 | News & Press

By Marilyn L. Weber

President & CEO

Deaf Interpreter Services


It’s not always easy for law enforcement officers to interact with deaf people, professes a top Chicago criminal lawyer. A Florida veteran officer writes about one experience when he was a rookie. He had detained a deaf person who reached into his jacket. The officer at first thought he was reaching for a gun.

“So I drew down on him,” the officer writes. “Then as any young first-year rookie would do, I started screaming commands at him; because any rookie knows, if the subject doesn’t understand you the first time, shouting louder always helps you get your point across.”

As it turned out, the man was merely reaching for a laminated card that explained that he was deaf. It contained instructions for reaching an emergency contact. Once that contact, a certified interpreter, showed up, the officer, and the detainee got things sorted out with the help of an attorney from 1-800-Injured.

These sort of incidents aren’t that rare. Talila A. Lewis is the founder of Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD), an organization dedicated to educating justice professionals; correcting and preventing deaf wrongful convictions; and ending abuse of deaf and disabled prisoners. Writing on the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) web site, Lewis tells three similar anecdotes:

Two years ago, Robert Kim pulled over to fix a flat tire just before slipping into a diabetic episode. He was seated on the grass when a police officer arrived. Kim tried to make the officer aware that he was deaf, that he had trouble speaking, and that he was in diabetic shock. Instead of contacting paramedics, this officer and others beat and tasered Kim for failing to respond to their verbal orders. Doctors at the hospital where Kim was subsequently taken assessed his condition as life-threatening.

This January, Pearl Pearson, a 64-year-old deaf mom, was attempting to show patrolmen a placard saying “I am deaf” when they pulled him from his car, brutally assaulted him, dislocating his shoulder and swelling his eyes. Immediately following Pearson’s assault, the officers’ dashboard camera reveals officers cursing after they run a quick check of his license and find out that he is deaf. The district attorney announced that the patrolmen involved would not be charged for this brutal attack on the same day that he charged Pearson—who has two sons who are police officers—with resisting arrest.

And last February Jonathan Meister was carrying his belongings from his friend’s home when officers mistook him for a burglar, determined that his attempts to use sign language were aggressive, and began beating, tasering and choking him to the point of unconsciousness.

These stories highlight the woeful lack of training about—and awareness of—Deaf culture and communication within police departments across the nation. They illustrate the urgent need for systemic change.

Lewis wrote that in 2014, the same year that Marlee Matlin, who is deaf and the wife of a police officer, teamed up with ACLU and HEARD to produce an American Sign Language video to ensure deaf people know their rights when interacting with law enforcement. Thanks to their work, and the work of other advocacy agencies, unfortunate encounters between law enforcement officials and the deaf may be a bit rarer today. But there’s still much work to be done.

The number of people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing today isn’t as small as you might think, and it’s growing faster and faster as the population ages. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, almost one in 10 people in the U.S. could benefit from hearing aids. About two percent of adults aged 45 to 54 have disabling hearing loss—but the rate increases to 8.5 percent for adults aged 55 to 64, to 25 percent of those aged 65 to 74 and 50 percent of those who are 75 and older.

Avoiding violence in encounters is a top priority. But even if violence in encounters is successfully avoided, there are still problems that aren’t always easy to navigate when dealing with deaf and hard-of-hearing people. How does an officer best communicate with a deaf person for instance? Can writing notes and back and forth be sufficient? Do all or most deaf people read lips? When is an interpreter necessary, and even legally required?`

The Arrival of the ADA

The answers of those questions are contained in a law that’s only a bit more than a quarter of a century old. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990. Before then, almost all accommodations made for deaf or disabled people were entirely discretionary.

The ADA prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life—to enjoy employment opportunities, to purchase goods and services, and to participate in state and local government programs and services. It is one of America’s most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation.

Modelled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, the ADA is an ‘equal opportunity’ law for people with disabilities. It prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else. The law didn’t come about simply or easily. As the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) notes:

The ADA owes its birthright not to any one person, or any few, but to the many thousands of people who make up the disability rights movement—people who have worked for years organizing and attending protests, licking envelopes, sending out alerts, drafting legislation, speaking, testifying, negotiating, lobbying, filing lawsuits, being arrested—doing whatever they could for a cause they believed in. There are far too many people whose commitment and hard work contributed to the passage of this historic piece of disability civil rights legislation to be able to give appropriate credit by name. Without the work of so many—without the disability rights movement—there would be no ADA.

The disability rights movement, over the last couple of decades, has made the injustices faced by people with disabilities visible to the American public and to politicians. This required reversing the centuries long history of “out of sight, out of mind” that the segregation of disabled people served to promote. The disability rights movement adopted many of the strategies of the civil rights movements before it.

Like the African-Americans who sat in at segregated lunch counters and refused to move to the back of the bus, people with disabilities sat in federal buildings, obstructed the movement of inaccessible buses, and marched through the streets to protest injustice. And like the civil rights movements before it, the disability rights movement sought injustice in the courts and in the halls of Congress.

The ADA is enforced through complaints, lawsuits, consent decrees, settlement agreements and mediation. Unfortunately, many law enforcement agencies get educated on the ADA the hard way, after they’re hit with a lawsuit and found in noncompliance of the law. Worse, the media love to report on ADA violations by law enforcement. This can draw intense negative attention to your local agency.

ADA complaints against law enforcement tend to stem from a wrongful arrest, failure to reasonably accommodate the disabled person during an arrest or insufficient training. If the finding is against an agency, it has the opportunity to enter into voluntary compliance or face civil action in federal court.

Most agencies today cover ADA requirements in their policy and procedure manuals. If your agency doesn’t, and gives officers little or no guidance in regard to working with the deaf of hard-of-hearing, you might want to suggest to your command staff that they rethink their policy. The compelling bottom line argument for ADA compliance is that it reduces agency liability. If you want to know how big of a deal this can be, simply Google “police and the mistreatment of the deaf” and see what you find.

Guidance for Officers

The good news is that most incidents are preventable. The ACLU has an entire section of its site devoted to laws about deaf people ( that both law enforcement officers and deaf people should know about. Matlin’s video is oriented mostly towards deaf people, and what they need to know. But one subsection of the site is a list of resources for law enforcement that are quite helpful. Here’s a summary of much of what is covered there:

  • Recognize when you need an interpreter. When officers interact with a deaf or hard-of-hearing person in a brief and simple fashion—such as when they’re checking a license, giving directions or responding to a violent crime in progress—they generally don’t need an interpreter. For more complex transactions, such as an extensive interview, the ADA requires that officers provide deaf persons with an interpreter at no charge. Deaf people often normally rely on interpreters to understand what someone is saying, and longer conversations require an understanding of nuance and complexities that aren’t otherwise easy to convey. When you need an interpreter, be sure you understand which language the deaf person you’re dealing with speaks, so you’ll know what sort of interpreter you need: American Sign Language (ASL) and Signed English and the most common. Most agencies don’t have a full-time interpreter on staff, but they either have a contract with a sign language interpreting agency, or can contact one 24/7 to help provide support as needed.

Be very careful about misunderstandings in the absence of a qualified interpreter. A nod of the head may be an attempt to appear cooperative in the midst of misunderstanding, rather than consent or a confession of wrongdoing.

  • Avoid using friends or family members as interpreters. If the need for information is urgent, the help is willing, and the questions are basic and uncomplicated, a family member of a companion may be used as an interpreter. But as a rule, it should be avoided. The emotional connection between a family member or companion and the deaf person is likely to inhibit their ability to communicate effectively and impartially. If an interpreter is required, it must be provided by the law enforcement agency.
  • Don’t count on writing notes as a communications solution. Writing notes may be effective for short exchanges, but it isn’t an effective substitute for an interpreter during longer interviews. ASL actually has its own rules, grammar and structure, which is very different from English. For many deaf people, ASL is their first language, and you cannot assume they are fluent in written English.
  • Know the limits of lip-reading, and don’t expect it. Some deaf and hard-of-hearing people can lip read, but many can’t. And among those deaf and hard-of-hearing folks who can read lips, most can only do it in a limited fashion. Only about one third of spoken words, on average, can be understood by lip reading. Many words look the same on the lips, as they are formed in the back of the mouth. Given that, it shouldn’t be relied upon as effective means of communication.
  • Watch your body language and attend to other communication cues. Before speaking, be sure you’re situated in a location that is well-lit and where there’s minimal background noise and other distractions. Get the deaf person’s attention by a gentle tap on the shoulder, or a wave of your hand. If there are several of you, be sure that only one person speaks at a time. Remembering that even the best lip readers only understand about one third of spoken words, do not turn your back while speaking, and don’t cover your face or chew gum. Speak carefully, distinctly and slowly, but not too slowly or unnatural. Use simple words and short sentences. If you can use a visual aid to illustrate your point—such as pointing to printed information on a citation or other document—do it.
  • Have assistive devices available. An assistive listening system or device that amplifies sound is helpful to have when speaking to a hard-of-hearing person. For deaf people who use English as their first language, you may need to utilize captioning services (also known as Communication Access Real-time Translation or CART) to be understood. CART services are performed by an individual who uses a stenotype machine or computer and special software to transcribe everything that is being said, word-by-word, onto a computer, television or projection screen that deaf or hard-of-hearing people can read.

If you’ve arrested a deaf person, remember that they are entitled to the same rights as anyone else, and can make a call to a friend or lawyer in private, without being monitored. To make that phone call a deaf person will need the use of a video phone to connect with either a deaf family member or a VRS company to make a “signed” phone call. For hard-of-hearing people who do not sign, or those with a speech impediment, they would need to use a captioned telephone or computer to go through a third entity to make a call and have it printed out where they could read it. Telephone access must be available to inmates who are deaf (or who have a speech impediment disability) under the same terms and conditions as telephone privileges are offered to all inmates, and your agency should be sure you indicate the availability of such devices to arrestees.

The National Association of the Deaf (NAD), has a helpful web page that cites the specific Federal regulations that require law enforcement to provide interpreters and assistive devices.

Increasingly, deaf and hard-of-hearing people and law enforcement are learning to anticipate encounters with each other and avoid friction. Deaf people who watch Matlin’s video, or are gaining similar instruction, are taught to start encounters with several basics: If they’re in a car, as a law enforcement officer approaches, they know to keep both hands on the wheel. Ideally, they’ll right away use the universal sign of deafness—pointing with each hand to their ears—to indicate to an officer that they’re deaf. They’re increasingly carrying a card in their wallet that explains their deafness, and sometimes have a written indication that they’re deaf available on their car visor. Deaf people generally understand that it’s important to not touch an officer at any time, which is a bit of a difference for people who often communicate very expressively with their hands.

As agencies are increasingly becoming ADA compliant, more and more law enforcement officers know many of the essentials outlined in this article.

Remember that particularly during routine stops, such as a traffic citation, most deaf people generally have good will, and may even be a bit more anxious to be compliant and understood than the average person. When you don’t know whether you’re being understood, simply ask the deaf person, in writing: What sort of aids or services do you need from us?

Almost all of the time, your efforts to ensure careful and accurate communication and show respect will be deeply appreciated by deaf or hard-of-hearing people.

About the Author

Marilyn L. Weber, president and CEO of DIS, is a certified sign language interpreter and has an adult daughter who is deaf. Marilyn has been working for more than 25 years promoting accessible communication, and advocating for the rights of the deaf community. She has interpreted in thousands of professional situations, and conducts deaf awareness workshops, cultural diversity training, and ADA Compliance Consulting. Marilyn has over 2,900 hours of related professional training. Her husband John has his State of Texas Master Peace Officer license.

Marilyn has received several awards from various local and national organizations recognizing her work and dedication to the deaf community.

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