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How To Talk To The Police If You’re Deaf

“My first mode of communication is with my hands”

Image by Jewel Samad via AFP/Getty images

When an unarmed deaf man named Daniel Kevin Harris was killed by a state trooper near his Charlotte, North Carolina home last Thursday, his brother claimed the tragedy was just the latest in a series of “misunderstandings that led to him being afraid of the police.”

Dealing with law enforcement can be an intimidating experience under even the best of circumstances. For the approximately 2 million deaf Americans who communicate through sign language, following an order to put one’s hands up or keep them on a steering wheel can be dangerous move. And that’s assuming a deaf individual is able to understand such an order in the first place.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]People don’t get the chance to point to their ears.[/quote]

Corrin Shimmin of Fresno, California is culturally Deaf (distinguished by a capital “D”), meaning her primary mode of communication is through American Sign Language. Though she’s able to write and does particularly well with an interpreter present, her “first mode of communication is with my hands—sign language is the language I speak, so it’s the language I’m going to try to use to tell an officer that I’m deaf… I want to know that an officer will give me the time to tell them that I can’t hear them without becoming violent toward me.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) stipulates that deaf and hard-of-hearing people be provided the same rights and services from police agencies as those who are hearing, in addition to requiring that an interpreter or other accommodation be made available to a deaf person if needed, such as visual aids. But quickly and safely communicating one’s disability is a vital first step—and a challenge in the heat of the moment.

“The problem that we’re encountering is people don’t get the chance to point to their ears,” says Susan Mizner of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) disability counsel. Police see sudden hand movements and react to them as a potential threat, as they did in 2014 when a deaf man in California was tasered and beaten after police mistook his “attempts to communicate via sign language as aggressive hand signals.”

To better prepare the hearing impaired for future interactions with police, the ACLU has released a video featuring Marlee Matlin, Oscar-winning actress and Deaf activist, providing instructions for what to do in the event that a deaf or hard-of-hearing person is pulled over by a cop. In addition to posting easily-visible documentation of hearing-loss on one’s car windshield or dashboard, the ACLU suggests using the universal sign for “I can’t hear you”—pointing to your ears and shaking your head.

Recognizing cultural differences is also key. For example, in deaf culture, it’s normal and even encouraged to touch the person you are speaking with, whether in an informal or professional setting. In the flare of red and blue police lights, however, a tap on the shoulder could be interpreted as a hostile act. The video outlines a number of alternatives, along with a step-by-step process for hard-of-hearing individuals placed under arrest.

Still, Mizner doesn’t want to imply that deaf people are entirely responsible for safe interactions with the police. “At this point, we see the bigger issue as being one of training police to deescalate across the board. They need to stop responding with force as the first response.”

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]There is far too much time spent on use of a gun, and far too little time spent on how to defuse situations.[/quote]

Policy changes and training updates are long-term measures that will hopefully limit potential instances of injury and death. In the ACLU’s petition to update police training for engaging with the deaf and disabled, de-escalation is at the forefront. “There is far too much time spent on use of a gun, and far too little time spent on how to defuse situations and know your community,” says Mizner.

Along with the right to remain silent, we are all entitled to the right to have our voices heard by our government—even if we aren’t able to speak aloud.

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