“Fighting to Be Heard: The Deaf Community, Prisons, and the Police”, HandiStrong, July 2014

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Fighting to Be Heard: the Deaf Community, Prisons, and the Police

Milo Todd

This article originally appeared in HandiStrong, July 2014.

The Deaf community is not often on the minds of officers and law enforcement, most of whom are hearing. So when an individual who is Deaf is pulled over while driving or is accused of a crime, communication can slip away quickly.

After catching wind of several unfortunate incidents, HEARD (Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf) and ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) teamed up to shed light on this important topic, showing how poorly people who are Deaf can be treated due to outdated police training, an unavailability of knowledgeable interpreters, and outright refusals to provide basic rights.


In April of this year, a video was released on the HEARD website which instructed people who are Deaf on how to interact with police officers if they were ever pulled over while driving. The video starred none other than Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin.

“I’d been wanting to do a Know Your Rights video in sign so that people who are Deaf have access to the information in their primary language,” said Susan Mizner of the ACLU Disability Council. “So TL and I worked together, came up with a script, and then the communications folks recruited Marlee Matlin. We were completely thrilled because she is just a rock star.”

“Marlee and her interpreter volunteered their time to do this because they saw it as being so crucially important and a completely ignored issue,” said Talila “TL” Lewis, HEARD Founder.

With the release of the video came an opportunity for people who are Deaf to submit their own stories of interaction with the police. Lewis and Mizner have been since trying to talk with the Department of Justice (DOJ) on their policies. “The DOJ has very good but very old training for police about how to work with people with disabilities, especially for the Deaf community,” said Mizner. “To show you how outdated this training is: video phones had yet to exist.” HEARD and ACLU are currently working to team up with other organizations to convince the DOJ to update their policies.

“The main issue we’re trying to address is misunderstanding between police officers and folks who are Deaf,” Mizner said. “It can happen so easily and so quickly because police officers are on the alert. They are trained to control a situation.”

Mizner said a good example of a situation that causes misunderstanding happens at night, when an officer pulls over a vehicle and will shine a light in the car and into the driver’s face. This can temporarily blind any individual, but particularly creates a wall between an officer and a driver who is Deaf for communication. But even when there isn’t a visual barrier, outdated police training can still cause severe outcomes.

“One of the cases that came to our attention was a 64-year-old Deaf man named Pearl Pearson,” said Mizner. Quite simply, Pearson was pulled over for a traffic stop. Since he has two sons who are officers, he knew to remain calm. “He had a good understanding of how to communicate with the police,” Mizner said. “He signaled to the officer that he was Deaf and then put his hands on the steering wheel to show that he was not a threat. But then the officer began to yell at him to roll down the window. And when [Pearson] didn’t respond, the officer assumed the worst, dragged him out of the car, and started beating him up. And then [Pearson] was charged with resisting arrest. We get these stories all the time: situations in which standard police protocol leads to misunderstandings with people who are culturally Deaf.”

“There are many, many incidents of these just…brutal beatings,” Lewis said. “Deaf communication and Deaf culture are very different from police communication and police culture. For instance, the need of touching to get attention, like tapping a person. Or the need to be completely facing a person to talk to them. But if you have your eyes beaten shut, like was the case with Mr. Pearl Pearson, then you can’t communicate. How can he convey by that point that he’s Deaf?”


“I found a lot of people who shouldn’t have been arrested in the first place. It all came down to a lack of communication,” Lewis said.

Her awareness about the police and prison issues grew when she began to receive letters from prisoners. After looking over their files, she realized that some of these individuals were not only likely innocent, but hadn’t been given any proper means of communication during their legal interrogations and police interactions.

“One man was being interrogated for a candy machine robbery,” Lewis said, “and he ended up being charged with the rape of a young child because he wasn’t supplied with a proper way to communicate. He was later exonerated based on DNA, but it still shouldn’t have happened. This is a great example of how easily things can go wrong.”

Much like with day-to-day police interactions, legal interrogations can take a sharp turn simply due to a lack of proper communication resources. Instead of a trained ASL interpreter, some facilities believe they can get by with a finger-spelling officer or a swapping of English-written notes.

“Most people don’t realize that those who are culturally Deaf—raised with sign as their means of communication instead of the spoken and written word—can have a hard time really corresponding through and understanding written word,” Mizner said. “And how frequently interpreters aren’t made available, even for very critical conversations.”

“Many, many Deaf people use sign language as their first or only means of communication,” Lewis added. “This is just as if, say, somebody who speaks Spanish or Russian as their primary or only language, they would have trouble trying to communicate through English in the written word. It can be the same with people who are Deaf. ASL is a language. Many people don’t understand that. Deaf people have full communication capabilities. It’s just in a different language.”

And this language does not translate straight into English very well, given many cultural nuances and methods. Lewis provided the example of someone being interrogated by police about whether or not they hit a woman on a bike while driving. “The Deaf person may respond with ‘girl,’ ‘hit,’ and, ‘I,’ which is being negated with a headshake, meaning, ‘I didn’t hit that girl’ or ‘That was not me.’ But when those signs are simply written down by a police officer, they clearly can look incriminating.”

Despite these severe miscommunications, it’s often been the case where an individual who is Deaf is denied a proper interpreter, even though the law requires one be present.

“There are very clear requirements under the ADA to provide communication access throughout the criminal justice process,” said Mizner. “Unfortunately, most of those requirements are honored more in the breach. It is not an area where people know to ask for sign language interpretation or real-time captioning. And even when they do ask for it, folks don’t know how to respond. This is an area that needs a great deal of work.”


If a person who is Deaf ends up in prison—whether they were guilty of a crime or not—their difficulties in the world of law are far from over. Aside from being a target for physical and sexual abuse from both officers and fellow prisoners, a prisoner who is Deaf often continues to lack a right to communication, particularly to the outside. To help relieve the latter issue, Lewis and Mizner wrote to the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) about the cost of making phone calls from prison for people who are Deaf.

“It’s a huge issue for most prisoners and an area that the FCC has been trying to address,” Mizner said. “Getting a phone call is especially difficult for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing.” She named the length of phone calls (since signing can sometimes take longer than verbal speech), power and energy requirements, and video equipment that is needed for individuals who are Deaf to make phone calls. “So the expense is off the charts. But it’s often really the only lifeline they have. Most of them are extremely isolated.”

To date, there are only about 7 video phones in total in prisons throughout the United States.

In the attempt to address the issue of prisoner abuse, HEARD and ACLU also collaborated on a documentary called “Deaf in Prison,” which was shown for free on YouTube for 48 hours during the June 28th-29th weekend. It was viewed over 24,000 times before the end of the first day. Both organizations continue to work toward bettering the environments for Deaf prisoners. Lewis said HEARD is also helping people who are Deaf attend and finish law school. The organization further hopes to one day open up different chapters of HEARD across the United States.

“We’re trying to start a national conversation about Deaf prisoners because most people simply don’t know,” Lewis said.

“If anybody [who is Deaf] has had difficult interactions with police or prisons, we want to hear about it,” Mizner added. “The point of all of this is to bring these interactions to light and help both police and people who are Deaf understand what can go wrong and what they can do to protect themselves and help keep a bad interaction from happening.”

To hear more about the campaign, see HEARD’s site.

If you would like to report police brutality or wrongful arrest, fill out this form.

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