Hearing Privilege & The Law

Being deaf, our privilege of being able to communicate in the hearing world is minimized because people are unaware of how to communicate with a deaf person. Now, what does that mean for a typical deaf person when they interact with law enforcement? A traffic stop can become something hasty and deadly, just as it did for Daniel Harris. The police’s unwillingness to take a breather and attempt to communicate with Harris abruptly ended his life. Because of lack of desire to engage in a written form of communication, a deaf man from Ontario was violently tackled to the ground by law enforcement. Due to hearing privilege, Tanya Ingram was arrested and denied an interpreter at the scene of her accident.

In late August of 2016, Daniel Harris was pulled over after a seven-mile chase due because of a speeding violation, and was shot at the scene. It is speculated that a lack of training on how to interact and engage with deaf motorists was the main cause for the shooting. There were a series of misunderstandings, and this led to a fatal tragedy. The National Association of the Deaf President Melissa Draganac-Hawk remarked on this situation, saying, “Daniel isn’t the first deaf person who was wrongfully shot by the police.” Daniel Harris’s brother now advocates for the training of police officers and their approach with deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

A different kind of situation occurred for Ms. Tanya Ingram, in February 2013, but this situation is not unusual. Ingram was involved in a minor accident, and the person who was responsible for the accident was hearing. She took advantage of the lack of interpreter provided for Ingram by lying about the accident. Ingram knew the offender was lying, and wrote down on a piece of paper, “You did not understand me. That’s not right. I know she’s lying to you. How can I tell you my story? I want my rights. Call interpreter”. The officers also taunted and mocked Ingram for her use of gestures when she gestured she was deaf. At the end of the scene, she was arrested without any communication or understanding of what was occurring. She was held in a holding cell for 24 hours without any provision of an interpreter. This left Ingram frightened and in the dark with the situation that was taking place. This is the overlapping of hearing privilege and injustice at its finest.

Recently, on November 12th, 2016, a deaf man in Ontario, Canada was placed in a uncomfortable predicament after gesturing for pen and paper to the police officer before being placed under arrest. This arrest was done violently and with physical force. The officer responded, “I am not going to write it for you.” The man was consistent with motioning to his ears signaling he could not hear. They arrested him without explaining his rights, and spoke behind him. How is a deaf man supposed to even attempt to comprehend what was being relayed to him if the communication is occurring without having any visual identification of the officers communicating to him? The arrest denied the man a basic right: the right to communicate. Regardless of being arrested before, nobody’s rights should be denied, especially the right to communicate.

There have been varying incidents of police brutality and ignorance of how to engage and approach a deaf person. The right to an interpreter is often ignored, because the officers believe an interpreter is unnecessary, or ignore the signals and motions from a person is deaf.  There are more workshops and training for law enforcement on providing communication for the deaf community, as well as training on how to advance towards and proceed with issuing a speeding ticket or something of this matter by using a different means of communication. To protect you, there are placards stating “I am deaf,” with varying comments, which you can place in your windshield.  If you, as a member of the deaf community, yearn for more information regarding this pressing concern, Gallaudet provides open forums with law enforcement. You can express your questions and considerations with law enforcement to gain a better insight on how you, as a deaf person, can make traffic stops, potential arrests if you committed a crime, and so forth, more accessible and less chaotic for you.  Keep an eye out for these forums!

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