In order from left to right: name, police, ticket, crash, hurt, and license. Photo JP Molnar
Photo Dale Stockton
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You're leaving the coffee shop parking lot when an oblivious driver runs a stop sign right in front of you. You stop him and walk toward the vehicle. As you approach, the driver intently watches you in the side-view mirror. Is he up to something? Without establishing eye contact, you ask how he's doing. No response. He reaches toward the glove box. You command him to keep his hands where you can see them, but he continues to open the glove box and reach for something. You again order him to keep his hands in view, but he doesn't respond. Sensing things may go from bad to worse, you yank your Taser from your belt and center the little red dot on his torso, yelling at him to stop what he is doing. The driver finally turns to look at you, and his facial expression changes from concern to panic as he sees the business end of your Taser. He waves his hands and yells something unintelligible. "Another stumbling drunk," you think. You open his door and motion him out; he complies. You tell him to turn around, and he continues to stare at you, so you grab his shoulder and handcuff him. You ask him his name. No response. You ask if he's been drinking. No response. Is this a big-time criminal? Hardly. The driver is deaf, and he was reaching for a pad and pen to tell you so.
Chances are pretty good you will come into contact with a deaf or hard-of-hearing person during the course of your duties. Unfortunately, most officers are not trained to recognize and properly deal with a person missing the sense of hearing most of us take for granted. As a result, deaf people have been mistakenly arrested and incarcerated due to misunderstandings and miscommunications.
Police officers know people behave strangely for many different reasons, so it's unrealistic to assume all non-responsive subjects are deaf. This guide is intended to provide basic information about this population and help prepare you for an appropriate response if you do encounter a deaf or hard-of-hearing person.
Nearly 10 percent of the American population suffers from some degree of hearing loss.1 It can occur in all age groups for a number of reasons. Some people lose their hearing as infants, before they are exposed to any spoken language. Others lose their hearing after they have acquired perfect verbal language. Deaf and hard-of-hearing people come in all shapes and sizes, and they are everyday citizens who have families, drive cars, go to work, earn college degrees and, sometimes, even work in law enforcement.
It's been said that when you lose one sense, your other senses strengthen to compensate for the loss. Hearing loss tends to increase visual awareness. Deaf and hard-of-hearing people naturally communicate in a more visual way and tend to be more visually aware of their surroundings than hearing people. In percentages, a hearing person absorbs about 65 percent of sensory information visually, whereas a deaf person absorbs about 90 percent of sensory information visually.2 Because of this, statistically speaking, a deaf or hard-of-hearing person is as safe as or safer than a hearing person when it comes to driving. Turn up a hearing person's radio, and they're as good as deaf to the outside world.
Deaf people tend to view themselves as a cultural and linguistic minority, rather than a disabled group. In fact, American Sign Language (ASL) is the third most commonly used language in the United States.3 ASL is an official language, with its own grammar and vocabulary. ASL "speakers" communicate using their hands and eyes rather than their mouths and ears. Affiliation with Deaf culture is most often characterized by the use of ASL. Not all deaf and hard-of-hearing people will choose to use sign language, though they may still require certain communication considerations.
Practical Communication Options
Paper and pencil
If the person has decent English reading and writing skills, a simple paper and pencil or word processor can facilitate effective communication. Remember: English is a second language for some deaf people, and written communication may not always be most effective. Try to limit written notes to simple and direct questions.
Speech reading or lip reading
Although there are some very talented lip readers in the world, don't count on it. Less than 30 percent of English can be understood by lip reading under ideal conditions, even by the most fluent of English speakers. If a person is wearing hearing aids, don't assume they can hear your voice or understand your words. Deaf and hard-of-hearing people have a tendency to nod as someone is speaking to indicate that they're paying attention, but don't assume they comprehend what you say.
Even with spoken language, about two-thirds of any message is conveyed through body language and facial expressions. While speaking, use your natural facial expressions to support what you are saying. If you're writing a citation, point to important information. You can use gestures to help determine where something happened, or to describe the size or shape of something.
Obviously, no one expects you to become fluent in another language for a population you may not frequently encounter. Still, it's a good idea to learn simple signs that can help you extract information in an emergency situation. Sign language classes are available in many communities. A pocket-sized guide for emergency-related signs can prove invaluable (see Online Resources, below).
Do make sure you have the person's attention before you speak to them. It's appropriate to wave your hand or gently tap them on the shoulder.
Do communicate in a well-lit area. If the interaction occurs at night, try to stand in as much light as possible.
Do maintain eye contact and face the person.
Do remove gum or other obstructions from your mouth. If you have a microphone over your mouth, move it out of the way for the conversation.
Do speak slowly and clearly. Simplify your sentences without exaggerating your speech.
Do point at what you're talking about, and use facial expressions to support your message.
Do ask occasionally if the person understands everything you say.
Do remove any visual distractions and unnecessary background noise.
Do be patient.
Actions to Avoid
Don't treat a deaf or hard-of-hearing person as if they're disabled or dumb.
Don't shine your flashlight into a deaf person's eyes. They need to be able to see you to communicate.
Don't call them "hearing impaired." Most people consider it outdated and offensive.
Don't assume that because someone can speak clearly they can hear you.
Don't assume anyone can understand you by reading your lips.
Don't give up.
Handcuffing sign language users with their hands behind their backs has been a long-standing controversy. The simple solution is to treat a deaf or hard-of-hearing person like any other person. However, be aware that handcuffing a deaf person behind their back limits their ability to communicate, and is like gagging a hearing person who uses their voice. If officer safety is at risk, go ahead and handcuff a suspect behind their back. If a suspect seems compliant, consider using a transport belt so their hands are visible and have some mobility.
Deaf people have the right to communicate with police officers and to know why they are being arrested. Denying them that right can lead to serious ramifications in federal court. In 2005, two deaf people filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against the City of North Las Vegas and its police department for violating their civil and constitutional rights. In both cases, the deaf people made their communication needs clear to the officers involved, who allegedly refused to accommodate them.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Title II mandates the provision of effective communication and auxiliary communication aids by government agencies to ensure all services are delivered consistently to all citizens. For law enforcement, this includes witnesses, suspects and victims. Remember: Effective communication is determined by what is effective for the consumer, not for the government. If you're interviewing someone whose primary language is sign language, you will probably need to obtain an interpreter or other auxiliary communication aid.
Important: The ADA does not require an interpreter to be present at the arrest of a suspect, only before the reading of Miranda warnings. Using anyone but a professional interpreter to convey a complex message is not acceptable, and any testimony or confession gained from doing so may not hold up in court. So, ask the person what kind of specific services they need in order to communicate. If they request a particular qualified interpreter, honor that request if the interpreter is available. You may also contact your state agency for the deaf and hard of hearing or the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf to obtain an interpreter. This can result in delays in interviewing a person who uses sign language, but using a certified interpreter ensures the testimony will be accurate and admissible in court.
Everyone wants to go home at the end of the day, preferably without a lawsuit. When you encounter a deaf or hard-of-hearing person, recognize an opportunity to test your communication skills, rather than to identify a problem. Take your time, be courteous and just communicate.
For information about The Americans with Disabilities Act, visit www.ada.gov or call 800/514-0301.
To order 100 Signs for Emergencies a pocket-sized booklet that includes 100 important signs, including transportation, people, natural disasters and other emergencies, the fingerspelling alphabet and numbers visit www.dawnsign.com. This inexpensive resource is offered in packs of 10 for $5, or packs of 50 for $20.
To obtain a certified interpreter, visit the national Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf Web site at www.rid.org. Any certified interpreter should be qualified to respond; if not, they will direct you to someone who can.
- Lucas, Cecil. The Sociolinguistics of Sign Language. Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 2001.
Katrina Fricano works for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Advocacy Resource Center in Carson City, Nev. She is an interpreter and has been active in the deaf community for the last five years. She has completed numerous criminal justice courses, and she served as the assistant to the commander of the Western Nevada State Peace Officers Academy.