Will America's Police Finally Listen to Deaf People?

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Will America's Police Finally Listen to Deaf People?

By Sarah Katz


Police departments across America are finally acting to reduce violent interactions with deaf people. But is it enough?

By Sarah Katz

  • Three decades after the Americans With Disabilities Act passed in 1990, deaf people continue to be assaulted and killed by law enforcement.
  • Several police departments are finally bringing changes, but activists argue they’re not enough.
  • With masks covering faces of officers during the pandemic, lip reading has become even harder for deaf Americans.

“Have you been drinking?” asked the police officer who stopped me one evening as I drove home from a family dinner a few years ago. Allegedly, I had a broken taillight — though nothing was damaged that I could see. “No,” I told him, tensing up. “All I’ve had tonight is ginger ale. You can ask my parents, parked up there.” They had pulled over and were watching protectively from a distance.

What the officer had construed as drunkenness was actually my deafness. I was born deaf, and people hearing me speak for the first time sometimes unwittingly attempt to place my “accent” — a faux pas I usually brush aside. In this case, my “accent” was a liability. Moments later, the police officer let me go without incident. But others — especially those who are not white like me — are not so lucky.

“Although the Americans With Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, requires police to provide “effective communication” to people with disabilities, three decades later, law enforcement often fails to meet that mandate. The group Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of Deaf Communities (HEARD) has counted at least 10 cases in the past five years of police officers using violence against Americans, migrants, and sovereign indigenous people who are deaf or hard of hearing — including six instances of fatal shootings. And this data is far from comprehensive, the group says. Now, some police departments have finally begun to change their policies.”

The mask covers the police officer’s face, making it impossible to even attempt lip reading.

Howard Rosenblum, National Association of the Deaf

In Amherst, Massachusetts, officers received a mobile app on their phones in February that connects them to an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter when they encounter a deaf person. That same month, in St. Paul, Minnesota, the city council agreed to require its police department to use certified sign language interpreters for scheduled interactions with people who are deaf or hard of hearing. That change came after officers failed to provide an interpreter to a deaf woman who was wrongfully arrested after her mother assaulted her. Several police departments, including Garden City and Savannah in Georgia, and in Vermont, are also providing deaf people with cards that identify them as deaf to the police.

But these changes don’t go far enough, experts and community advocates argue. “The overall approach of police officers to most situations generally is to perceive anything other than full and immediate compliance with verbal instructions or commands as intentional noncompliance,” says Howard Rosenblum, the chief executive officer of the National Association of the Deaf. “Such approaches … are not conducive to resolving communication issues with deaf and hard of hearing people.”

The violence and lack of understanding faced by deaf Americans is in keeping with a broader pattern: The Ruderman Family Foundation estimates that more than a third of all Americans killed by police have a disability, and the majority of victims are Native or Black. Leroy F. Moore Jr., a Black man with cerebral palsy who co-founded the Krip-Hop Nation movement and POOR Magazine, tells me: “What we need is more community education. … So, you can call a neighbor instead of calling the police.”

Yet there are specific challenges that deaf people face. “Officers are generally not trained in identifying, interacting and communicating” with them, says Rosenblum. The absence of any national standards means that each of America’s 18,000 police departments “determines its own training and policies,” he adds. 

Rosenblum says deaf people are in a particularly precarious position during the pandemic as a result of officers wearing masks. “The mask covers the police officer’s face, making it impossible to even attempt lip reading,” he says. Since ASL requires understanding facial expressions, those who use the language also struggle when masks cover most of an officer’s faces.

Talila Lewis, a co-founder and volunteer director of HEARD, agrees that the steps police departments are taking aren’t sufficient. “HEARD hopes to see accountability when disabled people are harmed by policing systems,” Lewis says. That includes firing guilty officers, ending policies that simply place officers under investigation on administrative leave, instituting a zero tolerance policy and making individual officers liable for settlements, Lewis adds.

Efforts to use the crisis to increase the size, power or budgets of policing systems aren’t acceptable, Lewis says. “HEARD rejects ‘solutions’ to police violence that place the onus on disabled people to identify themselves as disabled.” Will America reject these “solutions” too?