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The barriers faced by deaf and disabled individuals within our justice, legal and corrections professions are not widely discussed or well understood.  Nevertheless, deaf and disabled people are particularly susceptible to unjust encounters within each of these professions. This article will focus on barriers facing deaf people, but should be read with an eye, mind, heart toward disability justice more broadly. 

Lack of awareness about deaf culture and communication¬†within these professions leads to wrongful arrests and convictions; disproportionately harsh punishment for alleged crimes; and higher recidivism rates for this historically underserved and misunderstood population. While language access services are recognized as integral to police, court and prison operations for spoken language minorities; deaf people–many of whom use sign languages to communicate–rarely receive this essential component of a functional and fair justice system.

Long-standing federal disability rights laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, guarantee equal communication access in each of these spheres.  Yet, narratives from deaf people and existing research on Deaf Access to Justice indicate that each of these systems consistently fails to provide equal access to services, activities and programs for this population. The consequences of cultural incompetence within these realms are beyond tragic:

  • Police officers assault and kill innocent deaf citizens;
  • Attorneys do not provide effective assistance of counsel, leading to deaf wrongful convictions;
  • Prison officials perpetuate physical and sexual assault against deaf prisoners; and
  • Parole officers deny deaf returned citizens an equal opportunity to successfully reintegrate into society.

For example, in 1999, Mr. Joseph Heard spent twenty-two months in the District of Columbia Jail (D.C. Jail) after a judge dismissed charges against him and ordered his immediate release. The District failed to provide telecommunications access and interpreters for the duration of his unlawful two-year confinement.  So complete was his isolation, that he was unable to effectively communicate to anyone that he was being illegally held. During this unlawful detention, the contracted medical healthcare provider performed medical testing on Mr. Heard and gave him potentially dangerous, anti-psychotic medications without communicating with him or obtaining his informed consent.  In 2005, Mr. Heard won a $1.5 million settlement against the District of Columbia for these and other egregious rights violations.

In 2013, less than decade later, another deaf man initiated a suit against the D.C. Jail for its failure to provide interpreters, telecommunication, and other auxiliary aids during his detention at the D.C. Jail.  These narratives, and narratives from deaf people across the nation support the proposition that existing laws and litigation, standing alone, will not create a just justice system. We cannot leverage legal and legislative victories into social and cultural change.  Instead, we must enforce existing laws and use education to create a society that considers disability in the development of everything. HEARD created the #DeafInPrison Campaign to raise awareness about abuse of and discrimination against deaf detainees and prisoners across the nation, but education and open dialogue is key to ending these tragedies.

Indeed, it is the general lack of understanding of and sensitivity to the deaf community’s unique linguistic culture, coupled with lack of enforcement of existing laws, that makes access to justice particularly elusive for this population. ¬†The justice, legal and corrections professions must address this gap in knowledge through education & training that is led by (and centered on) deaf and signing people.¬† Only then will professionals within these systems be able to understand and effectively address barriers to access for deaf people. Education will continue to change attitudes and perspectives of justice professionals, but candid discussion of past access oversights is crucial to ensuring that we move forward in a way that truly advances justice for deaf people.

I am hopeful that we will see a day when there will no longer be a need for the Deaf Access to Justice Movement and I have some ideas about how we can get there.  We must educate stakeholders and policymakers; hire deaf people to work in each of these professions; build cross-ability and cross-power coalitions; create and leverage contacts to ensure that deaf people have a seat at bargaining tables; investigate and report on discrimination and abuse within these professions; and hold one another accountalbe for universal accessibility.

This is how we can heal, transform and strengthen our communities while advancing the cause of justice. 


 Important #DeafInPrison Campaign Links: