Category Archives: Deaf rights

International Week of the Deaf 2017: 5 Civil Rights Issues You Should Know About

international-week-deaf-blog-2017-asl-07This week is International Week of the Deaf, a worldwide celebration of deafness, d/Deaf individuals, Deaf cultures, and signed languages which is held every year at the end of September. This year, the theme of the week is “Full Inclusion with Sign Language.”

Global celebrations like International Week of the Deaf have a ripple effect when it comes to raising awareness. “Full Inclusion with Sign Language” is an important message, as those who are Deaf consider themselves to be a linguistic minority group, and they are very proud of their signed languages. Helping the hearing majority to recognize and appreciate the complexities signed languages can help bring the issues of reasonable accommodations and full inclusion to mainstream discussions.

To celebrate International Week of the Deaf, I wanted to highlight 5 major civil rights issues that Deaf advocates are actively working to address.

Access to Signed Language

Because 9 out of 10 deaf babies are born to hearing parents with no connection to the d/Deaf community, the first few months of a deaf child’s life can be confusing— for both the parents and the developing child. This is a critical window of time for cognitive development. This is a time when babies are learning so much about the world, and they need a language with which they can begin to frame it.

The National Association for the Deaf (NAD) takes a very strong and clear position on the topic of access to signed language, stating: “Deaf and hard of hearing children like all children have a right to language. Signed language, being a visual language, is the only completely accessible language for these children… Research has shown that thousands of deaf and hard of hearing children are experiencing various levels of language deprivation, many to an extent that constitutes harm in the form of educational, social-emotional and cognitive delays. For this reason, it is the position of the National Association of the Deaf that an all-out effort needs to be made to ensure that all deaf and hard of hearing children have full and meaningful access to language from birth and the benefit of visual language and visual learning.”

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NAD has established a Language Deprivation Taskforce to address the issue conscientiously. Deaf-led organizations like LEAD-K and the Nyle DiMarco Foundation are working to fill the gaps when it comes to educating and raising awareness on a community level.

Dr. Peter Hauser, a Clinical Neuropsychologist and associate professor at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) at the Rochester Institute of Technology, has given numerous lectures and conducts ongoing research that makes a strong case for giving deaf children access to signed language. He even wrote book along with his esteemed colleague Dr. Marc Marshark called “How Deaf Children Learn.” Further underlining support of early access to signed language, NTID offers a FAQ on their site about Educating Deaf Children with answers from international experts.

Education

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Piggybacking on the problems caused by delayed language acquisition, access to education is one of the biggest issues that the d/Deaf community seeks to address. So many young people who are deaf suffer, often without complaint, through years in an educational system that simply was not designed for them to succeed.

The World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) website explains: “Deaf children have the right to expect that their needs and human, linguistic and educational rights are respected and supported … Studies by the WFD reveal that the enrollment rate and literacy achievement of Deaf children is far below the average for the population at large. Illiteracy and semi-literacy are serious problems among Deaf people. Without appropriate education, advancement in society as an independent, employed, contributing citizen becomes problematic…. WFD takes the unequivocal position that there is no excuse for this deplorable situation, since Deaf children have the same innate intellectual, social and emotional capacities, as do all children.”

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Access to a curriculum that makes sense for their abilities can determine the course of a deaf student’s future. Schools need to be prepared to offer captioning and high quality interpreting services for students who are deaf, as needed, and these costs need to be built into the budget right from the start.

Deaf leadership is proving to be a strong cornerstone for the slow but steady push toward equal learning opportunities. Organizations like LEAD-K, with the simple goal of creating generations of Kindergarten-ready Deaf children, have been instrumental in enacting public policy reform that shines a light on the inequality faced by deaf children when it comes to education. This continues to be a long and uphill battle.

Employment Opportunities

Although the exact statistics can be a bit fuzzy, the indisputable fact remains: Unemployment is a problem that disproportionately impacts the d/Deaf community. Deaf individuals are unemployed at a significantly higher rate than the hearing population.

From the interview process onward, discriminatory attitudes create barriers to career success. Employers might be afraid to hire a person who is deaf because they don’t understand how to open lines of communications and integrate this person onto the team; they may overlook a perfectly qualified deaf candidate in favor of a less qualified hearing person. Once they have been hired, typically deaf individuals are given little support, encouragement, or room for career advancement. Without satisfactory employment opportunities, the cycle of oppression just continues ad infinitum. It never ends.

Those who are d/Deaf deserve the same opportunities to build a life for themselves as everyone else, without being limited by a language barrier or limited by a lack of cultural awareness. Deaf activist groups have to advocate constantly for the basic human right to earn a livable income. In 2015, there was a march on Washington DC to raise awareness about deaf unemployment, and to demonstrate support for opening up better job opportunities.

To learn more about this topic, check out the following blogs:

6 Reasons to Hire Deaf Employees
Hiring And Supporting Deaf Employees
Creating Opportunities for Deaf Employees

Access to Justice

From initial encounters with police officers all the way to sentencing trials, the criminal justice system fails individuals who are deaf time and time again.

For those who are unable to hear, dealing with police officers can be unnerving, it can be humiliating, and in some cases, it can be deadly. Interacting with authorities within the legal system who refuse to provide adequate accommodations can lead to misunderstandings that could mean the difference between a witness statement and a coerced confession. Deaf people get accused of noncompliance because they do not hear police orders, or they are deemed a threat for using their hands to communicate in ASL. These situations escalate so frequently, in fact, that the ACLU teamed up with Academy Award winning deaf actress Marlee Matlin to create a video designed to empower deaf individuals to advocate for their legal rights when interacting with law enforcement.

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According to civil rights advocacy group Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD), “There are tens of thousands of deaf people in jails and prisons across the nation. Most departments of corrections do not track numbers or locations of deaf prisoners.” Lost within the prison system, some of these individuals slip through the cracks for years, sometimes their entire lives, serving sentences for crimes they may not have committed without ever having access to a fair trial or the kind of support they would need to build a defense case. Many d/Deaf prisoners can not even make phone calls due to woefully outdated telecommunications systems.

Once they are in jail, deaf prisoners can easily be overlooked for medical or mental health care services, or they might be denied service because they are not able to communicate their needs effectively. Or even worse, these prisoners get taken advantage of and abused because they do not have the ability nor the resources to advocate for themselves from such a disempowered position.

Things don’t get easier once people are returned to citizen life, with the combination of a disability and a criminal record it can be nearly impossible to find decent work. Without equal access to justice at every s

tep along the way, the entire system continues to uphold the oppression of marginalized people.

NAD Law and Advocacy Center
Center for American Progress: Disabled Behind Bars

Inadequate Services

If there is any lesson to be learned from the several highly publicized “fake interpreter” incidents over the past few years, it is that deaf individuals are provided inadequate sign language interpreters on a regular basis. If subpar interpreters are being assigned to interpret major televised events, do you suppose these interpreters are also being sent to doctors appointments and parent teacher conferences?

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Just turn on the local news with the closed captioning, you will quickly witness how live captioning can be almost hilariously inaccurate (or in the case of an emergency, dangerously inaccurate). And, as the “No More Craptions” campaign points out, accessibility for internet content is even worse. The bottom line here is that people who are deaf— when they actually do receive “access” to the communication services they need— are often still being denied an equal experience.

With regards to interpreting services, unfortunately, some organizations just hire the cheapest interpreting agency they can find, and this agency might not even have anyone who is fluent in ASL screening the interpreters before they are sent out on assignment. These unqualified interpreters serve as yet another communication barrier for the deaf consumer, and they might even dramatically impact or endanger the person’s life. At the end of the day, effective communication is not being offered, which is a violation of the ADA.

In 2004, RID and NAD implemented a joint Code of Professional Ethics for all members and certified interpreters. RID has established an interpreter certification program to to help maintain a high level of excellence, and the organization provides a support network for constant professional development. Although these efforts are slowly improving service for deaf consumers, they have sadly not prevented unqualified interpreters from getting work.

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Even now, in the year 2017, there are persistent barriers that people who are deaf must overcome to gain basic access to everyday goods and services. The Americans with Disabilities Act endeavors to protect the civil rights of all Americans, regardless of ability, by requiring businesses and organizations to offer “reasonable accommodations” that allow effective communication. For people who are d/Deaf, this could mean anything from captioning, texting, video relay services, or sign language interpreting services, dependent on the individual.

At the same time, the d/Deaf community is becoming stronger and more cohesive than ever, connecting across countries, languages, religions, genders, races, and disabilities. As this happens, we begin to recognize where these discussions intersect and overlap with other systems of oppression, finding greater strength even still. Deaf issues have seeped into the mainstream consciousness and will continue to find footing in the ongoing public discourse on diversity, chipping away at the cultural ignorance that places a lifetime of limitations on a person just because of their hearing ability.

Deaf Protestors in DC Demand the Opportunity to Work

deaf-hoh-employment-protest-dc-01On September 5 and 6, 2015, a group of Americans marched on the White House to advocate for their rights. Marginalized and generally silenced within mainstream society, members of the Deaf community stood together at the Deaf Protest in Washington, DC to make their voices heard loud and clear. A large banner held by those at the front of the march explained to onlookers what they were witnessing: “Deaf Protest on Jobs. 75% of Deaf are not working in USA.”

deaf-hoh-employment-protest-district-columbiaThe Deaf Protest march was intended to raise awareness about the discrimination, high rates of unemployment, civil rights violations, and lack of communication access that deaf people endure on a daily basis. Frustrated by his own experience trying to find a job, protest organizer Charlton Lachase decided it was time to take action. Although Lachase is educated and qualified, he is deaf and has low-vision, so he says prejudiced employers would rather not hire him. “Deaf people are discriminated against regularly,” he explained. “And we just put up with it. We’re not getting the services we deserve and we need to speak out.”

deaf-hoh-employment-protest-dc-03There are millions of deaf Americans who struggle from the time they are children just to access the world around them and more than 500,000 deaf individuals who use ASL as their primary language. Because English is challenging to learn, especially for those who cannot hear it, deaf people find the odds stacked against them. Even deaf people who work hard to excel in school and obtain a degree or certification face discrimination in the hiring process. Take the recent case of Kelly Osborne, a qualified plasma center technician whose conditional job offer was rescinded after her employer realized they would need to make a few adjustments to the workflow to accommodate a deaf employee.

Misconceptions about deafness and inadequate cultural competency training serve as barriers to employment. Organizations claim to encourage diversity, while at the same time denying career opportunities for qualified individuals. These businesses use diversity as a buzzword without ever considering the infrastructure that is necessary to support employees with a variety of skills and needs.

deaf-hoh-employment-problem-04It is well known in the Deaf community that a person’s best chance of being considered for a job is to bring their own interpreter for the interview— even though the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) legally requires hiring entities to cover this cost. Sadly, instead of organizations accommodating the needs of a diverse workforce, deaf individuals have to accommodate for discriminatory hiring practices. Then if they do get hired, after paying for their own interpreter, deaf individuals often continue to encounter both overt and subtle workplace discrimination. They are left out of meetings, discussions, and social events. There is little support or opportunity for advancement.

deaf-hoh-employment-problem-05Deaf people want to work and they deserve to feel successful. They are tired of enduring the same oppressive practices that the ADA was supposed to protect against. More than 1500 people turned out for the Deaf Protest to make themselves seen and heard. Not because they expected a major victory, but because they are tired of sitting idly while their community struggles for the basic right to gainful employment.

deaf-hoh-employment-problem-dc-protest-05The spirited Deaf Protest went on for two days— but where were the reporters and TV cameras? Lachase contacted several news outlets to cover the Deaf Protest, but the mainstream media decided that a civil rights rally happening right in our nation’s capital was not newsworthy. While major networks simply ignored the march, passing up a great opportunity to support a growing movement, DeafNation did an incredible job documenting the Deaf Protest on social media. A short documentary about the experience can be found on the DeafNation website. In the video, deaf people share their powerful stories of oppression, demand equal opportunities, and call upon the rest of America to fight for true equality.

deaf-hoh-employment-problem-dc-protest-05b“People were very motivated and helpful,” reported Joel Barish, host of “No Barriers with Joel Barish” on DeafNation. Barish added that he was excited to take part in the march and document the experience, saying, “at least we made some noise in DC.”

Justice and inclusivity remain at the center of our current national dialogue; now we need to turn all that talk into action. Minority groups across the spectrum are battling for equality in both a social and legal sense. The success of movements such as marriage equality reflect the changing tides of public opinion.

deaf-hoh-employment-problem-dc-protest-05c“I think that what it comes down to is visibility,” said Lachase. “The deaf community needs exposure. We need to use social media and get out in the streets. We are looking to do another protest in March or April and we hope to see our numbers grow.”

Let us be fueled by the passion that burns within our community! The time is right for deaf/ HoH individuals and deaf allies to bring national attention to the shameful employment gap that keeps the Deaf community in a state of social and economic poverty. Let’s encourage one another to keep moving forward, again and again, until we break through those barriers of institutional oppression together.

Hiring and Supporting Deaf Employees

hiring-deaf-employees-01Applying for jobs can be exciting and nerve-wracking. You revise your resume until it is in top form, hoping your professional skills are strong enough about to be considered for the position. When a company contacts you to schedule a formal interview, gushing about how well qualified you are, they suggest that the job is essentially yours. It seems like everything is going great, right up until you inform the hiring manager that you are deaf and will need a sign language interpreter for the interview. “Oh, we will have to get back to you about that,” they say. But they almost never do.

hiring-deaf-employees-02It is well known in the Deaf community that a persons’ best chance of being considered for a job to bring their own interpreter for the interview– even though the ADA legally requires hiring entities to cover this cost. Sadly, instead of organizations accommodating the needs of a diverse workforce, deaf individuals have to accommodate for discriminatory hiring practices. And if they do get hired, after paying for their own interpreter, deaf individuals often continue to encounter both overt and subtle workplace discrimination.

supporting-deaf-employees-03Deaf people have to constantly push back against a society that was not designed for them to succeed. As an interpreter and CODA (Child of Deaf Adults), it can be hard to witness the structural injustice faced by my deaf colleagues and family members on a daily basis. I was recently on an assignment where the deaf consumer shared with me their frustration that the only times they were ever provided an interpreter was when it was absolutely necessary to moving forward on a project. This deaf individual works for a federal agency– an organization with plenty of funding to properly support their employees– yet has to work harder than any of their coworkers just to participate in the workplace.

Hiring-Deaf-Employees-of-ColorAlmost everyone has been in a work situation, at one time or another, where you were not provided the appropriate resources for the job. When you don’t have the tools you need, it can be difficult or even impossible to complete a task. This is discouraging and, if this pattern continues over a period of time, employees begin to feel disengaged from the organization. Employees perform best and are able to excel when they feel supported. The needs of deaf employees are a little different, and can vary from one situation to the next, but accommodations are generally not hard to make. Forming a positive relationship with deaf employees starts, just like any relationship, with a sense of respect.

hiring-deaf-employees-05Respect comes from understanding, from communicating, and from making a person feel appreciated. Before you even interview a deaf job candidate, do a little research on deaf communication and Deaf culture. We live in the age of the internet, where there is a wealth of information available; it only takes a short amount of time to give yourself a basic education. Nobody expects you to be a scholar on deafness– simply that you look beyond the stereotypes and approach the topic with an open mind. Learn that the deaf experience is different for everyone, about the different methods deaf individuals use to navigate the hearing world , and how to provide accommodations for equal access in the workplace.

hiring-deaf-employees-06Besides possessing the general skills required for the job, deaf employees can bring a unique perspective to your organization. Unfortunately, if deaf people do not feel like they are truly part of the team, they are unlikely to open up and contribute. If deaf employees are not able to participate equally in training seminars, team building exercises, meetings, or day-to-day office activities, they will probably not feel connected to the success of the organization. The best way to include deaf individuals in the workplace is to simply ask them what accommodations would make them most comfortable in each situation. Accommodations might range from from creating closed captioned training videos, to implementing Video Relay Service, to acquiring sign language interpreters. Reasonable accommodations will vary from person to person, but they are generally neither inconvenient nor cost prohibitive to provide. In the end, the entire organization benefits when they can get the most out of their employees.

hiring-deaf-employees-07In our current shifting social climate, organizations of all sizes are looking for ways to create workplace diversity. Diversity initiatives might be good intentioned, but many times they are poorly implemented, leaving these minority employees to sink or swim. Supporting deaf staff on an ongoing basis is like providing hardware and software updates, it is like making sure the break room has coffee– it is a crucial part of creating a healthy and functional working environment. It is simple, and the right thing to do.

LC Interpreting Services is pleased to offer sign language interpreting services and cultural competency training for businesses and organizations. Provide your deaf employees with the professional support they need; and learn how to truly benefit from having deaf employees join the team.

How the Criminal Justice System Fails the Deaf Community

deafness-criminal-justice-01Imagine a situation where you are accused of a crime– perhaps a crime you did not commit, or maybe even a crime you were the victim of. The arresting officers use a different language; you’re unable to communicate what happened before you get brought to jail. There is no way for you to contact your family or an attorney. Your legal rights are not accessible to you.

From frightening and dangerous arrests, to the lack of access to reentry services, our justice system fails deaf Americans every step of the way. I recently spoke with Talila A. Lewis, an attorney and civil rights activist, about the fight for deaf access to justice. In 2011, Lewis founded the DC-based all-volunteer nonprofit organization called Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD).  HEARD is dedicated to ensuring deaf and disabled people receive equal access to the legal system. HEARD focuses on educating justice professionals; correcting and preventing deaf wrongful convictions; ending abuse of deaf and disabled prisoners; and on increasing deaf involvement in the justice, legal, and corrections professions.

talia-lewis-deaf-02Most recently, HEARD has teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin, to lead a campaign to end police brutality against the deaf.

“Deaf wrongful convictions often begin when police officers fail to ensure that communication is effective pursuant to federal disability rights laws,” said Lewis.

To contact law enforcement, a deaf individual might use a videophone, which places an interpreter between the deaf caller and the 911 dispatcher. The dispatcher must then relay all information accurately from the interpreter to the responding officer. If it is a hearing person who dials 911, they might not tell the dispatcher that there is a deaf person on the scene.

According to Lewis, who is tracking incidences of police brutality and discrimination against deaf people across the nation, effective communication during this initial stage is critical to preventing wrongful arrest and convictions. Unfortunately, police officers sometimes rely on unqualified third parties—including children, and even alleged abusers—to facilitate communication during these interactions.

deafness-criminal-justice-911Rarely, if ever, do ASL interpreters arrive on the scene with the police. Many times, police show up completely unaware that they are working with with a person who is deaf. This can lead to dangerous misunderstandings.

For instance, Philip Wolfe escaped a domestic dispute and had a friend call the police. Although the dispatcher was informed that Wolfe was deaf and required an interpreter, the police showed up without one and completely misunderstood the issue. The domestic abuse charge was never filed. Wolfe’s partner returned that night and abused him again. In Oklahoma, sixty four year old Pearl Pearson was pulled out of his car and beaten by police as he attempted to show them a card that said “I am deaf.” The officers were not charged for the attack; but Pearson was charged with resisting arrest.

pearl-pearson-deaf-police-brutality-04Once a deaf individual has been taken into custody, it is the responsibility of police officers to ensure that access to communication is effective. Communication may require releasing a hand from handcuffs, cuffing hands in front of a person, providing Certified Sign Language Interpreters or Certified Deaf Interpreters, or perhaps another accommodation, as there are many. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) makes clear that police departments are responsible for providing reasonable accommodations and that preference for the type of accommodation goes to the deaf person; but deaf people nationwide report that police departments are not in compliance with the law.

I spoke with Maria Dollhopf, a deaf woman who experienced injustice during the legal process. According to Dollhopf, the arresting officers in her case made excuses and persuaded her that she did not need an interpreter.

deafness-criminal-justice-05“I kept gesturing for them to take me out of the cuffs to communicate, but they wouldn’t,” said Dollhopf. “The police said they couldn’t get an interpreter, so I had to stay in jail overnight. It was over 24 hours that I did not have an interpreter. I felt like i had no lifeline of communication.”

According to Lewis, officers sometimes draft statements without providing accommodations; and sometimes without consulting the deaf person at all.  “Many deaf people who use sign language as their first or only language have expressed to me that they did not—and often still do not—understand what was written but they felt intimidated, frustrated, fatigued and pressured into signing these documents. Even the best attorney will struggle to defend against a signed statement.”

Justice and legal professionals often lack deaf cultural competency, which plays a major role in deaf discrimination and oppression. Cultural competence refers to the ability to effectively interact with individuals from different cultures. For example, if detectives and attorneys do not understand that ASL is its’ own language, they may assume that writing notes back and forth with a deaf person is adequate. Lewis reminds us that several of the possible deaf wrongful conviction cases HEARD is currently investigating resulted from this very situation.

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“A recent Disability Rights California study on law enforcement training and mental health crisis intervention revealed that California’s police academy standards only require six hours of 664 hours of training be dedicated to disability,” said Lewis. “Within those six hours, cadets are supposed to cover a wide variety of disability-related topics and numerous disabilities. That is simply not enough. Moreover, the training should be developed and taught in conjunction with people within those specific disability communities.”

By getting to know the diverse communities they serve, law enforcement agencies can help eliminate some of the barriers to justice. Cultural competency means spending far more than 6 hours learning about people with different abilities.

 

Jason “JT” Tozier is the HEARD Deaf Community Liaison. JT offered to share his experience with the legal system 20 years ago. “When I went to the station for fingerprints and to have my photo taken, I had no idea what was going on. The police kept talking to me and trying to force me to read their lips, but I am Deaf and I sign! I told them I needed an interpreter but they kept denying me this access.”

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“When I first arrived in court, the judge tried making my brother interpreter for me,” recalls JT. “He wasn’t certified, he was only 17 or 18 years old. He didn’t want to interpret, but he felt very pressured to.” JT’s trial was postponed 3 times before a court interpreter was provided.

Legal interactions are critical, so a qualified interpreter is the most effective accommodation for deaf people. Courtrooms and jails are both required by the ADA to provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. The same goes for attorneys. To deny an interpreter is to deny equal access. Yet, time and time again deaf people are refused interpreters through every step of the legal process.

 

“The possibility of a person being wrongfully convicted only increases as time passes without consulting an attorney,” explains Lewis. “Immediate and effective attorney client communication is key. If the only way to access your attorney is via sign language and the jail fails to provide a videophone, you have no way to communicate with your attorney.”

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In many cases, lawyers do not know that they are required by law to provide ASL interpreters. Both Dollhopf and JT recall feeling confused and alienated from their respective attorneys throughout the legal process. “I didn’t really feel like the lawyer’s client because he did not offer me access,” said JT. “By the time an interpreter was finally provided, I just felt like everything was going over my head.”

Part of HEARD’s mission is educating those who work in the criminal justice system about providing access for the deaf. Lewis explains that in many cases, the courts themselves do not even understand where a deaf person’s rights have been violated. “There are lawyers who do not understand that they are required to provide interpreters pursuant to the ADA. Judges, public defenders, the bar. Administrators of justice have to become more culturally competent.”

The United States Department of Justice is responsible for enforcing the core provisions of the ADA. Unfortunately, said Lewis, there has been very little focus on these cases for myriad reasons. Lewis also explained that agencies sometimes have procedures related to working with deaf people, but policies are often outdated, or never implemented. Even the best policies become meaningless without enforcement. The end result is a criminal justice system full of entities that do not understand or comply with the ADA.

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There are thousands of deaf prisoners all across the country, yet only 6 prisons have video phones. Inmates are denied access to their family, friends, and legal counsel because effective communication technologies are not present, or because the staff does not know how to operate or “supervise” calls on the antiquated and unreliable equipment. Incarcerated deaf people are subsequently isolated, left out of prison orientations and safety meetings. Both Dollhopf and JT recall the guards in jail simply ignoring them, as if they were not human beings.

It’s practically impossible to overturn a wrongful conviction when you have no line to the outside world. A deaf man in Florida, Felix Garcia was sentenced to life in prison after his siblings framed him for murder in the 1980s. They have since admitted that Felix was not involved with the crime but, with only a 4th grade education, Garcia did not know or understand his rights throughout the legal process. He was unable to advocate for himself, and nobody came to his aid then. Former HEARD board member Pat Bliss, has worked on Felix’ case for nearly two decades and is currently supporting a bid for clemency for him. Like many deaf people who receive little or no access to communication throughout life, Garcia had simply gotten used to smiling and nodding his way through things. To date, Garcia is HEARD’s longest serving deaf wrongfully convicted prisoner—now on his thirty-third year in prison.

One major problem, notes Lewis, is that no one knows exactly how many deaf people are in the criminal justice system. HEARD created and maintains the only national database of deaf and deafblind prisoners, but Lewis emphasizes the importance of mandated tracking of deaf prisoners by government agencies and is pushing for the Department of Justice to create national standards for inclusion of and protection for deaf incarcerated people.

Empowering deaf individuals to become effective self-advocates is another major focus of HEARD. The organization has teamed up with the ACLU to produce videos that educate Deaf Americans about their civil rights, and Lewis and her deaf students at Rochester Institute of Technology/National Technical Institute of the Deaf are developing the first deaf-accessible resources on mass incarceration.

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“The hearing community talks non-stop about mass incarceration,” said Lewis. “Deaf people and people with disabilities are overrepresented in the prison population and the school-to-prison pipeline. I was trying to teach my students about mass incarceration, but there was just no accessible material available– nothing captioned or signed. So we had to actually create the videos for the Community.”

JT also emphasizes the importance of self-advocacy. “Know the Miranda rights, know your civil liberties, study the ADA. If you inform yourself and become educated, you can protect yourself. The police and legal system are going to try to oppress you. Be ready to stand up against that and know what you are entitled to!”

Lewis’ believes that creating equal access to justice requires intentional infusion of diversity into our justice system. “We need deaf professionals involved at every level. We need deaf consultants creating training programs and advising management. We need to see more deaf police officers, attorneys, judges, and prison officials.” Certified Deaf Interpreters and/or Certified Legal interpreters should be mandatory for legal proceedings involving a deaf signing individuals. More advocates within the system increases the odds of justice being served.

Deaf Americans deserve their constitutional rights, as guaranteed by the ADA. The legal process can be overwhelming for anyone, but for deaf people with no access, it can be confusing, dehumanizing, isolating, and treacherous.

“Honestly, it’s just not easy when you are deaf,” admits Dollhopf. “You can’t fight with the police, you can’t force them to get an interpreter. I was not able to get the services I needed, from the beginning. But what are you supposed to do? They make you feel like you have no voice.”

Deaf Rights: What You Need to Know

Sheryl Eisenberg-Michalowski_MAWorking in the Deaf community, I’ve noticed a great deal of confusion surrounding the legal rights of the Deaf. Both Deaf and hearing individuals have difficulty understanding what accommodations deaf people are entitled to, and how exactly those needs
get met. I recently had a chance to discuss these important issues with Sheryl Eisenberg-Michalowski, who serves as a Deaf legal liaison, and Deaf discrimination attorney Andrew Rozynski, Esq.

Deaf Rights

Sheryl Eisenberg-Michalowski — who serves as Deaf Liaison at Eisenberg & Baum Law Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing — explains that Deaf persons frequently encounter barriers when trying to protect their rights. Profoundly deaf since birth, Eisenberg-Michalowski has personally witnessed discrimination against deaf individuals from all walks of life, in a wide variety of scenarios. Utilizing her extensive experience, Eisenberg-Michalowski serves as an advocate for deaf, hard of hearing, and deaf-blind individuals; helping people better understand how to protect themselves against discrimination.

professional-asl-communication-nyc“Imagine yourself as a deaf individual with virtually no knowledge regarding the law. You may have been faced with job discrimination, personal injury, sexual harassment, or denied ASL interpreters for medical care. Obviously, legal assistance is needed, but the lawyer who takes your case may have no knowledge of Deaf culture or the needs of deaf individuals.” Eisenberg-Michalowski explains that many attorneys will take valid discrimination cases, but neglect to provide guidance for their Deaf client. “Without interpreters, clear communication with your lawyer is nonexistent. Where are your rights?

“Over the years, many laws have been passed in order to improve quality of life for deaf individuals,” she continued. “But even with today’s laws, I still see so much Audism– a term meaning the oppression of the Deaf, hard of hearing, and deaf-blind.”

Andrew_Rozynski_EsqAndrew Rozynski, a Deaf discrimination litigation attorney and partner at Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, offers some insight into Federal legal obligations to provide reasonable accommodations. Rozynski comes from a Deaf family, and his clientele is almost exclusively deaf. He is one of only a handful of attorneys in the United States who focuses his practice on the protection of Deaf persons rights.

“As a Deaf rights attorney, I focus my practice of law on combating discrimination against the Deaf in a variety of settings,” said Rozynski. “Hospitals, government, businesses; these are just some of the areas of everyday life where Deaf people require accommodations.”

ada-deaf-hohThe Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires many public and private entities to provide reasonable accommodations for the Deaf to ensure effective communication. What is a reasonable accommodation varies from situation to situation, and the need for accommodation can be different in each setting. Since each Deaf person has individual needs, determining what accommodation is appropriate can sometimes be confusing. Rozynski offered to elaborate:

“Reasonable accommodation is very ‘fact specific,’ which means it is evaluated on a case-by-case basis,” he explained. “It really depends on many factors, however, two important factors that are utilized are: (1) What are the Deaf person’s needs to facilitate effective communication, and (2) The length and complexity of the communication.”

So, how do you know if an interpreter is necessary?

“Assuming the Deaf person uses ASL as their primary form of communication, hospitals are one setting where a qualified sign language interpreter is almost always appropriate because critical communication concerning medical treatment is being conducted. In government settings– such as court proceedings or interviews with the police– interpreters are crucial for effective communication, because ones’ legal rights can be seriously impacted by miscommunication. In the employment setting, having interpreters for business meetings ensures that deaf employees can participate equally in the workplace.”

three_people_ASL_signingRozynski went on to provide further examples. “In the alternative, if you go in to a sandwich shop and request an interpreter, would that be appropriate under those circumstances? Probably not. “

“But, say a Deaf person is looking for a house and needs an interpreter to effectively communicate with the real estate broker. That might be an instance where people don’t know they have the right to request an interpreter. Or if one is getting a mortgage from a bank, that is another instance where a deaf person may be entitled to an interpreter so that they can fully understand the terms of the agreement as explained by the bank”

For brief interactions, like those in retail and restaurant locations, writing notes may be an appropriate option. The amount of information being communicated is often minimal and the content of the communication is simple. However, note writing is not always the solution.

ASL-in-hospital-setting“Sometimes doctors think writing notes back and forth for an appointment is an effective means of communication. It’s often not,” He continued. “Imagine trying to have a 20 minute phone conversation via handwriting. Would you explain yourself just as thoroughly? When people write, they often only give brief summaries of the information they want to convey. Additionally, people whose primary language is ASL may have some difficulty with the English language, making this method ineffective.”

The more critical and complex the communication, and the longer the interaction; the higher likelihood an interpreter will be needed. For example, a business training seminar or disciplinary meeting would both be times where an interpreter is an appropriate accommodation, because the information being relayed to the Deaf individual is very important and specific. ASL interpreters also serve as cultural mediators, bridging any gaps between Deaf and hearing culture so all parties can fully understand the messages being relayed.

“What accommodation is needed, is what provides for effective communication for the Deaf person,” said Rozynski.

asl-in-workplace-video-relayOne strategy that is being utilized across the country is Video Relay Interpreter (VRI) systems, which provide a professional interpreter through a video connection. “There are a lot of Deaf people who complain that VRI does not provide effective communication because the system will freeze, or not turn on, or staff members who are trying to use the VRI don’t know how to use it. Sometimes the screen is very small, or not suitable for the situation. For example, if someone is giving birth they often cannot look at a tablet off to their bedside. It’s generally not effective. Providing effective communication is key to each situation.”

In the work setting, both employer and employee should work together in an interactive process. The Deaf employee should let their manager know clearly what their communication needs are, and what situations they would like an interpreter for. Employers and places of public accommodation should analyze whether they are truly doing everything possible to ensure the Deaf individual receives equal access to all information being provided by the organization. Deaf parties should be realistic about what accommodations are necessary for each specific situation.

asl-in-metropolitan-museum-of-art“People often think that they can just refuse VRI without trying it, which isn’t always the case. Often times, people should try VRI if it’s offered. If it is not effective, you have the right to request a live ASL interpreter so that you can be provided effective communication” said Rozynski. VRI, if it works properly, can be a solution for short one-on-one communication—for instance when a hearing employee needs to have a brief conversation with a Deaf coworker. But in situations where there are multiple parties speaking, the information is critical, or where the equipment is not functioning correctly, VRI is usually unable to provide effective communication for Deaf individuals.

If you are a hearing entity responsible for providing reasonable accommodation, Rozynski has a few tips to ensure you provide equal access. Step one is contacting a reputable interpreting agency. Look for agencies that employ RID Certified interpreters and have a great deal of experience working with Deaf consumers. Businesses should be aware that if a meeting will last more than an hour, depending on the type of meeting, it may be required that 2 interpreters are provided. Also, make your interpreter request as far in advance as possible so that there will be no problems with scheduling, and the interpreter has ample lead time to prepare. Providing a professional interpreter is not optional when it is the only means of providing effective communication for the Deaf individual.

“Using family members or coworkers is also not ok,” he said, unless the coworker is designated by the business entity as a qualified staff ASL interpreter. Otherwise “it’s not appropriate.”

asl-in-the-workplaceIf you are a Deaf person requesting accommodation, Rozynski advises you communicate with a manager and keep a record of your requests. “I always recommend people make their requests in writing, just to be clear that a request has been made. If you still do not get your request for accommodation, I would suggest going up the chain as far as possible. If you still feel like you’re not being provided appropriate accommodations, ask for the reason why.”

Rozynski says that business often claim they are unable to afford sign language interpreters. “This is often disingenuous. Hospitals, banks, and big corporations are often able to pay for an interpreter.” He points out that the ADA looks at the financial strength of the whole organization when considering if an interpreter is cost prohibitive. A large museum, for example, may not refuse to provide an interpreter because it causes them to lose money on a $20 ticket. The same goes for doctors and dentists offices. It is the whole entity that is looked at, not the cost of the individual service provided.

“If you’re an employer or you’re a place of public accommodation, you have an obligation to provide effective communication to that Deaf person. If you do not provide effective communication to a Deaf person, you could potentially be opening yourself up to liability and have a lawsuit that could cost your organization much more than the cost of the interpreting services provided.”

deaf-hoh-asl-in-court-reportingIf the Deaf party still feels that equal access is not being provided, that person may have a legal claim.

“I would suggest someone who feels that their rights are violated should contact either an attorney or a local advocacy organization,” advised Rozynski. “Some attorneys do charge to take on discrimination cases; others don’t have any upfront charges and take the case on contingency, which means you don’t pay unless you win or the case settles. Many attorneys offer free consultations, and will let you know whether you have a viable case or not. It is also important to note that all cases have a statute of limitations, so if you feel your rights may have been violated an attorney should be contacted as soon as possible.”

“I think a lot of people are scared to take this next step because they worry that they will have to pay money to proceed with a lawsuit. Another reason for peoples hesitation is that they might not be comfortable with the legal process. This can be tough for people because they don’t know what to expect. Finding a law firm that a Deaf person can be comfortable with is key. The Deaf public should know that attorneys do have an obligation to provide interpreters– some attorneys are not even aware of that!”

child-asl-signingEisenberg-Michalowski adds that Deaf liaisons are also critical to the legal process because they can empower Deaf individuals to actively advocate for themselves. “We have had clients who are shocked at how involved they are in their cases, when compared to their previous law firms. One client told me that his (former) lawyer just made decisions without him. This treatment is a violation of these individuals’ legal rights.”

At the end of the day, most Deaf people do not want to go through a lengthy court battle to get the accommodations they deserve. They just want the equal access they are legally entitled to by the law. Providing reasonable accommodation is not a burden, it should be an expected cost of doing business. Welcoming Deaf individuals into all spaces is not just the law. It’s the right thing to do.

“I think the point is that these discrimination laws were created so Deaf people could equally participate in society,” concludes Rozynski. “It is our obligation, as a whole society, to ensure Deaf people have equal participation and that they can access the same kind of information that hearing people do in any type of setting.”

If you have any further questions, Andrew Rozynski and Sheryl Eisenberg-Michalowski can be contacted at:

Eisenberg & Baum, LLP 24 Union Square East, 4th Floor New York, NY 10003 Voice: (212) 353-8700 Video Phone: (646) 807-4096

 

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