An Unexpected Encounter: Tips for Law Enforcement Dealing with Deaf People
Author: Marilyn Weber



Probably the most trying and critical moment you’ll face as a law enforcement officer encountering a deaf person is simply figuring out that they’re deaf. Once you know that, you can generally proceed according to some best practices and standard tips, and usually have a fairly friction-free encounter. But if you are investigating someone who seems unresponsive, and you haven’t yet figured out they’re deaf—well, then things can get dicey.

You might assume a deaf person is being deliberately defiant or even belligerent if she does not respond to you immediately, for instance. Or a deaf person might reach into her pocket to pull out a card that tells you “I Am Deaf,” and your alarms might go off because it could appear she is reaching for a gun.

Fortunately, few law enforcement encounters with deaf people escalate to an alarming level. Most of them proceed not that differently than they might with any other person. But the more you know, the better prepared you are. Many officers are unsure about the best way to interact with deaf people, and wonder: Is it reasonable to expect that they can read my lips? If they have a companion who knows sign language, can I use the companion as an interpreter? Is it safe to communicate by writing messages?  What else am I legally required to know and do?

Here are some tips:

  • Identify when you need an interpreter. If you’re just asking for the name and address of someone at the scene of a crime, you probably don’t need an interpreter. For longer interactions, such as an extended interview, on the other hand, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that law enforcement agencies provide a deaf person with an interpreter at no charge. 
  • Generally, don’t use friends or family members as interpreters. An emotional connection between a deaf person and a family member or companion can constrain or hinder their ability to translate impartially and accurately. In a few cases – if your questions are uncomplicated, the need for information is pressing and the family member or companion is willing – then you may use such a person as an interpreter for short conversations. But as a rule try to avoid it.  
  • Don’t rely on written communication. Writing a note to a deaf person to convey a message may work for short exchanges, but you really do need an interpreter for longer interviews. ASL actually has its own rules, grammar and structure. Many deaf people speak American Sign Language (ASL) as their first language, and have limited knowledge of English as a second language that they aren’t fully fluent in. The two languages have entirely different rules and grammar structures. They aren’t interchangeable, and you shouldn’t count on using written English language exchanges for discussing complex details or incidents involving shades of distinction. 
  • Understand that there are real limits to lip-reading. While it’s true that a good number of deaf and hard-of-hearing people can read lips to understand the general gist of what a person is saying, many can’t. Moreover, even the best lip readers can generally only capture about one third of the words you speak. Lip readers rely on body language and context, and any number of other unspoken cues to figure out what you may be saying. You can’t count on it as a reliable and explicit translation method.
  • Be conscious of your body language and aware of critical communication cues. You should find an area that’s well-lit and where there’s not very much noise before you begin speaking. You might make sure you have a deaf or hard-of-hearing person’s attention before you begin speaking by offering a light tap on the shoulder or a wave of a hand. Make sure only one person speaks at a time. Don’t chew gum or cover your mouth when speaking. When you can, use visual aids – such as pointing at a citation or other document – to make your point very clear. Speak slowly.
  • Have assistive devices available. With a hard-of-hearing person, a device that amplifies sound may be a perfect solution and all you need to fully communicate. For deaf people, a Communication Access Real-time Translation (CART) device can be a great help. CART uses special software that transcribes everything that is being said, word-by-word, onto a computer, projection screen or television that deaf people can read.

If arrested, a deaf person has the same right to call a friend or lawyer in private that everyone else has, so any police department you’re working with to make an arrest will probably already have in place a video phone that deaf people can use to make a Video Relay Service (VRS) call. These video phones connect the deaf person to an interpreter, who then can pass on their messages in spoken English to other relevant people.

Deaf rights groups and other advocacy organizations such as the ACLU are working to educate deaf people about possible encounters with law enforcement so that incidents with law enforcement can go as smoothly as possible. Increasingly, deaf people know to keep both their hands on the wheel if they’re in a car when a law enforcement agent approaches them, or to use other methods to alert an officer that they’re deaf rather than reaching for anything in a pocket in a way that might cause alarm. One of their first moves should be to point to their ears – the universal sign of deafness – to alert an officer that they’re deaf.

Most of the time, the majority of the deaf people you’ll encounter in routine stops have good will towards you. They may even be a bit sympathetic: Many deaf people have learned about Sue Thomas, an American woman who is regarded as a bit of a hero since she became the first deaf person to work as an undercover specialist doing lip-reading of suspects for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But in any case, it’s likely that a deaf person is probably a bit more anxious than others you may regularly encounter simply because of a fear of being misunderstood.

If you find yourself in communication with a deaf or hard-of-hearing person and you aren’t sure it is going as well as it could, simply ask in writing: What sort of aids or assistance do you need from me?

Almost invariably, deaf and hard-of-hearing people will deeply appreciate your effort to help, and be grateful for the respect that you show them when doing it.  

 

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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