First Responders and the Deaf

by | March 24, 2023

Some food for thought:

If you’re a first responder, chances are good that you’ll encounter Deaf and hard of hearing people as you carry out your job duties. Whether it’s in a traffic stop, at a fire scene, in a jail setting, during a medical emergency, or in some other context, Deaf people are among us, and they have rights and needs that require special accommodations.

According to government estimates, approximately 10 million Americans are hard of hearing and close to 1 million are profoundly deaf. Of those, around 500,000 use American Sign Language (ASL) as their primary mode of communication.

Big-D and Little-D

It’s worth noting there are two very different perspectives on deafness in America. One sees deafness primarily as a medical condition — a disability — and focuses on rehabilitation and enablement from that starting point. The other sees Deaf people as a linguistic minority with a distinct language and cultural identity. The terms hearing impaired and (little-D) deaf are often used to describe the medical condition, while (big-D) Deaf is used for people who communicate in ASL and identify as part of the Deaf culture.

In the past, children with a hearing impairment were almost always sent to state residential schools for the Deaf to be educated. At these schools, Deaf children would be immersed in Deaf language and culture, which they would then take back to their families and communities. Today, it’s becoming more common for Deaf children to be mainstreamed into local public schools, where they learn through an interpreter. The type of education chosen for a Deaf child has a big impact on their development of “oral skills” (the ability to speak and understand spoken language), which of course can affect how Deaf adults ultimately interact with first responders.

Language Matters

A few terms you should know:

deaf: someone with profound hearing loss who requires accommodation to help communicate with others.

Deaf: a member of a cultural/linguistic minority that primarily uses ASL as its primary language. Most Deaf people prefer to be called Deaf rather than hearing impaired.

hard of hearing: someone with mild to severe hearing loss that makes spoken communication difficult. Most people who are hard of hearing rely on assistive technology instead of (rather than in addition to) sign language.

hearing impaired: medical/governmental term for someone with hearing loss.

Hearing: a person with no hearing loss.

It’s worth pointing out that ASL is not just “signed English,” but a unique language with its own vocabulary and grammar. Also, sign language is no more universal than spoken language. For example, American Sign Language and British Sign Language are as different as English and Japanese.

Deaf People’s Rights and the ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 fundamentally changed the way we view and treat people with disabilities in this country. The ADA established that disabled rights are civil rights, setting very specific requirements on how people with disabilities (including Deaf people) should be treated and accommodated. Most importantly, the ADA backs this up with the force of law. The ADA is administered by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.

In its ADA Guide for Law Enforcement Officers, the DOJ states:

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), people who are deaf or hard of hearing are entitled to the same services law enforcement provides to anyone else. They may not be excluded or segregated from services, be denied services, or otherwise be treated differently than other people. Law enforcement agencies must make efforts to ensure that their personnel communicate effectively with people whose disability affects hearing.

This guide further clarifies ADA requirements regarding communicating with the Deaf:

  • Law enforcement agencies must provide the communication aids and services needed to communicate effectively with people who are deaf or hard of hearing, except when a particular aid or service would result in an undue burden or a fundamental change in the nature of the law enforcement services being provided.
  • Agencies must give primary consideration to providing the aid or service requested by the person with the hearing disability.
  • Agencies cannot charge the person for the communication aids or services provided.
  • Agencies do not have to provide personally prescribed devices such as hearing aids.
  • When interpreters are needed, agencies must provide interpreters who can interpret effectively, accurately, and impartially.
  • Only the head of the agency or his or her designee can make the determination that a particular aid or service would cause an undue burden or a fundamental change in the nature of the law enforcement services being provided.

Similarly, the ADA Guide for Firefighters and EMS Personnel states:

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), people who are deaf or hard of hearing are entitled to the same services firefighters & EMS personnel provide to anyone else. They may not be excluded or segregated from services, be denied services, or otherwise be treated differently than other people. Fire houses/stations & ambulance companies must make efforts to ensure that their personnel communicate effectively with people whose disability affects hearing.

Your agency should have a policy covering communication with Deaf and hard of hearing people. If you’re not familiar with the policy, look it up or ask your supervisor for a copy.

Getting the Deaf Perspective

A number of years ago, actress Marlee Matlin, who is Deaf, produced a video for the ACLU in which she explains to her Deaf audience best practices for interacting with the police, with special emphasis on safeguarding civil rights. The video provides a concise picture of how Deaf people and those who advocate for them view Deaf rights:

It’s worth pointing out that Matlin’s husband of over 30 years is a former officer with the Burbank Police Department. She has a balanced perspective on both Deaf rights and how those in law enforcement can and should accommodate them.

Interacting With Deaf People

As a first responder, the most important thing you can do is to be aware Deaf people exist — that you can’t tell just by looking at someone whether they are Deaf or Hearing. If someone doesn’t respond to your questions or commands, don’t simply assume that person is ignoring you, under the influence or having a mental health issue. It might be that they just can’t hear you.

First Contact. First and most importantly, you should know that many Deaf people carry a laminated card in their wallet or tucked into the car visor that says something like, “Driver is Deaf and can’t hear you.” If you encounter someone who reaches immediately for their pocket or car visor, please be aware they might be a Deaf person trying to let you know they can’t hear you.

Outside of this context, if you suspect a person might be Deaf, there are a number of accepted ways to get that person’s attention. Try waving your hand until they make eye contact. If you happen to be behind the person, a gentle tap on the shoulder will usually get them to turn around. Depending on the situation, you may also flash the lights in the room on and off or tap on a table to get their attention. Repeating the same command, only louder, doesn’t help when the person can’t hear the command.

Once you have a person’s attention, you need to determine whether they might be Deaf. If you learn just one sign in ASL, it should be the sign for DEAF. With a closed fist, extend your index finger and touch your mouth and then your ear (or your ear and then your mouth — it means the same either way). Then point to the person you’re communicating with. This is the ASL equivalent of asking, “Are you Deaf?” If the person is, the usual response will be an enthusiastic nod or grateful smile.

Establishing Communication. How you continue your interaction with the Deaf person will be determined by the situation and the person’s abilities. Many Deaf Americans are “oral,” that is, they’re able use lipreading and residual hearing to understand spoken language. But remember this type of communication is difficult in the best of circumstances. You must be face to face with the person, with enough light for them to see. Even then, lipreading is notoriously difficult and inaccurate, as only 30 to 40% of speech can be gleaned this way.

For short, low-impact interactions with Deaf people (however your agency’s policy might define that), you can generally rely on speech and lipreading, pen and paper, or a “visor card.” If a Deaf person’s friend or family member offers to help interpret, remember that you’ll have no idea how effectively your words are being interpreted or how effectively the other person’s language is being relayed for you. Subject to departmental policy, most interactions beyond short, routine procedures like traffic stops or jail inspections should be facilitated by a certified interpreter.

Consider, also, the issue of using handcuffs on people who communicate with their hands. Putting a Deaf person in handcuffs is equivalent to gagging a Hearing person. Handcuffing behind the back, especially, can be problematic because it also prevents signing as well as pen-and-paper communication in the absence of an interpreter. According to the Justice Department, the best practice is to “Modify handcuffing policies to handcuff deaf individuals in front, safety permitting, to enable the person to communicate using sign language or writing.”

Getting Assistance. Though bystanders (even those who claim they “know how to sign”) and friends or family members may offer to help interpret for you, this can cause liability and other troubles. (Case in point: Tampa Police Department uses a “fake sign language interpreter” for a press conference.) In law enforcement and corrections environments, you’ll want to a certified interpreter who has experience in those settings and knowledge of the signs for legal system concepts. EMS/paramedic situations require an interpreter who can effectively interpret medical language.

Again, the ADA requires that public safety agencies provide services to both Deaf and Hearing people equally, and that the cost of special services (including interpreters) be borne by the agency, not the Deaf individuals. Failure to do this can result in lawsuits, sanctions, consent decrees and other penalties.

“The ADA established that disabled rights are civil rights, setting very specific requirements on how people with disabilities (including Deaf people) should be treated and accommodated.”

What Else Can You Do?

There are a number of things first responders can do to prepare themselves for interactions with Deaf people.

1. Know Your Department’s Policy. Ask your chief or supervisor for a copy of your agency’s policy regarding interactions with Deaf people. If your agency subscribes to Lexipol’s law enforcement policy management solution, this is the Communications with Persons with Disabilities policy If you’re in law enforcement and your department doesn’t have a policy in place, a model policy is available from the U.S. Department of Justice. Also, be familiar with your agency’s guidance regarding when a certified interpreter is required.

2. Keep a Notepad Handy. For limited interactions between first responders and Deaf people, a pen and paper can provide a way to communicate. If you’re a police officer, you probably don’t want to hand over your personal notebook to a stranger. Because of this, it’s good to carry a blank steno pad in your patrol vehicle to use on such occasions. You can keep the pages from your conversation to include in reports.

The Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, D.C., has a special Deaf and Hard of Hearing Liaison Unit with officers specially trained for interaction with the Deaf. This makes sense, since D.C. is home to Gallaudet University, the world’s only 4-year university specifically for the Deaf. The department has created a one-page “visor card” that gives law enforcement an easy way to communicate with Deaf people during a traffic stop. If you’re in law enforcement and your agency doesn’t provide a similar tool, download and print the MPDC’s version and use it when necessary.

3. Learn to Fingerspell. You don’t have to be fluent in ASL to communicate with a Deaf person on the job. Sometimes, just being able to spell out a critical word during a conversation with a Deaf person can make a big difference.

Most people can master the manual ASL alphabet with just a few hours of practice. There are plenty of online resources to help you learn. Here are a few:

Some helpful rules to remember when fingerspelling:

  1. Use your “dominant hand” (the one you write with) held near your front shoulder when fingerspelling.
  2. Form the letters smoothly, being careful not to bounce your hand as you spell.
  3. For doubled letters, open your hand slightly between the first and second letter. For open letters like B and L, form the first letter, then move your hand slightly outward to indicate the second letter.

Note that fingerspelling should only be used to clarify important words, or when other forms of communication aren’t working. For longer interactions — especially those with important legal implications — a certified interpreter should be used.

4. Learn a Few Basic Signs. If you interact with the Deaf on a fairly frequent basis, it’s helpful to learn a few basic ASL signs/phrases to help make these encounters easier for both parties. Here are a few resources for some basic vocabulary:

5. Set Up an Interpreting App. While lip-reading, pen and paper and fingerspelling are all helpful when interacting with Deaf people, any conversation beyond emergency questions and basic traffic stops should include a certified interpreter. In the past, this always meant calling an interpreter onsite at the department’s expense. Today, it’s possible to have on-demand interpreting through a computer or mobile device.

This type of on-demand interpreting is called Video Remote Interpreting (or Video Relay Interpreting), or VRI. As with in-person interpreters, these services must be set up beforehand so they’re available when needed. They require, at minimum, a service provider and a device (such as a phone or tablet) to facilitate communication. Talk to your supervisor to see if your department has set up such a service, and remember there may be policies, laws and regulations regarding who needs to provide the device.

6. Contract a Certified ASL Interpreter. Your department or city should already have a contract for ASL interpreting services. It’s important to know the correct procedure for requesting an interpreter. Again, this is something to nail down before you need it.

Conclusion

Deaf Americans are an “invisible minority” with special rights afforded by the laws of this nation and the policies of our public safety agencies. First responders need to be aware that the people they come into contact with could have a hearing impairment requiring accommodations prescribed by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Every department and agency should have a policy that indicates how these accommodations are provided; they also need to obtain interpreting services in advance, so they are available when needed.

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