You suddenly find yourself charged with a crime. Or, you find yourself a litigant in a civil suit. Our various systems of law enforcement, including policing agencies and our courts, are established to ensure that justice is meted out equally to all under clearly defined laws.
Oh and what if you find yourself in these legal circumstances and youre deaf, or have a severe hearing loss. In these cases, justice isnt just blind, it has a hearing problem as well.
How can people with hearing loss, or people who experience total deafness, find justice in a legal system that depends on communication two-way communication. Theres a very easy, low-cost solution to the problem. It just requires action and anticipation.
Yet, the problem is far from solved especially for those accused of crimes who cant properly defend themselves due to an inability to hear and speak on an equal basis with other members of the proceedings.
The Ohio State Supreme Court
In the summer of 2007, the Ohio Supreme Court released what it calls a reference tool to be used by judges in cases involving individuals with hearing loss. The tool, called interpreter bench cards, developed to support legal professionals in determining whether an interpreter is required to assist a litigant, party or witness and identifying if an interpreter is qualified.
And though the interpreter bench cards are specific to Ohio, at least for the time being, its inevitable that guidelines for the selection and use of interpreters for the deaf and hard of hearing will continue to be developed by legislators on a state by state basis.
The objective is to have court services accessible to all including deaf and hard of hearing individuals, said Bruno Romero, manager of the Supreme Court's Interpreter Services Program. Even though it is a small minority within the populations that need interpretive services in the courts, it is still an important population to serve.
The bench cards distributed by Ohios top court provide a list of questions court officers can ask in order to determine if an individual requires the assistance of an interpreter. Qualifications for interpreters are also detailed on these bench cards, especially useful information for court officials who have had little or no interaction with the hard-of-hearing population.
The point is simple. People with hearing loss have the same legal rights as all other citizens. These bench cards make it easier for court officials to communicate. They also lessen the likelihood of misunderstandings through misinterpretations. It is a trend wed like to see continue.
Is a Traffic Stop Ever Routine?
You see the flashing rack of lights in your rearview mirror and your stomach tightens into a knot. Now what? Speeding? Another infraction thats going to cost you? Great.
Now imagine that you experience severe hearing loss or are deaf. It makes it all the more difficult to communicate with the police officer who pulled you over. Thats why The Kentucky Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing hooked up with the Kentucky State Police to develop a card that can be carried by troopers and drivers depicting basic requests from police officers, violation and assistance questions. The card also provides troopers with basic information on communicating with a deaf individual.
Communication is a facet of everyday life that we take for granted. For deaf and hard of hearing people, its a challenge, said Virginia Moore, interim executive director of KCDHH. For police officers, it is a challenge. So when these two groups come together, communication needs to be quick and effective. This card is not the answer to everything, but it gets communication started to help with something people encounter every day.
Whats cool about this interpretation card is its popularity and the ease at which it allows these infractions or calls for assistance to be undertaken. 200 Kentucky drivers applied for the card in the first week the program became available and more and more drivers are requesting a card which fits neatly behind the sun visor.
This isnt a difficult program to implement, nor is it expensive to print up the cards. This is the kind of win-win-win solution wed like to see when the hearing world interacts with non-hearing individuals.
National Association of the Deaf (NAD) Files Complaint Against Hospital
The NAD has filed a lawsuit against Palmetto General Hospital in Hialeah, Florida for failing to provide an interpreter for a deaf couple who were having a baby and who remained in the hospital for seven days again, without a qualified interpreter.
The saga begins when Cynthia Cuevas was eight months pregnant. Her mother-in-law notified Hialeah authorities that Cynthia did not care for herself or her unborn child. Without the assistance of a sign language interpreter, the police committed Ms. Cuevas against her will for two days for psychological evaluation. The evaluation showed that, indeed, Cynthia was not mentally unstable.
Two days after admittance to Palmetto General, Cynthia gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Cynthia and her newborn were kept in the hospital for five days and during that time, no sign language interpreter was made available to the couple.
Hospitals are required to provide qualified sign language interpreters when necessary to ensure effective communication for appropriate diagnosis, effective treatment, informed consent, quality health care, and discharge information, said Michael Stein, an attorney with the NAD Law and Advocacy Center.
Deaf Man Tased
It happened in Wichita, Kansas.
Donnell Williams was tased in his home after local authorities received an emergency call of a shooting at the address where Williams lived. After being tased, law enforcement discovered the call was false and that Williams was not wearing his hearing aid and, therefore, could not respond to the officers commands.
A meeting between the Wichita PD and the deaf community was arranged after the incident. "No one wants to see unfortunate incidents occur. We don't. Citizens don't. No one does," says Wichita Police Deputy Chief Robert Williams.
Members of the deaf community were quick to point out that individuals with hearing loss must learn to communicate with the hearing population. Its definitely a two-way street. But, do you notice something all four of these incidents have in common, other than the obvious problems in translation?
Reaction Not Pro-Action
We know that there are deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. They live and work next to us. Theyre our friends, relatives and fellow citizens. This isnt any kind of surprise, yet in the four cases above, all officials reacted to the problem. Now, this is good. At least law enforcement recognizes the problem and is taking steps to rectify the difficulties in cross-communication in what could well be life-threatening situations. So?
So, it is incumbent upon our law enforcement and legal systems to take proactive steps to ensure that participants in proceedings are fully aware of courtroom activities. This, in almost every case, will require additional expense for the interpreter who will have to be available on an as needed basis.
Further, responsibility for effective communication works both ways. If you have severe hearing loss, be prepared. Develop your own card if local services cant provide them. When the cop stops you for doing 100mph in a 40mph zone, just show him the card saying youre deaf or have severe hearing loss. Maybe you can beat the rap.
The problem is so simple to solve. A laminated card carried by law enforcement and those with severe hearing loss. It contains information, questions and answers and can, at least, ensure that those who experience hearing loss are given equal protection under the law the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.
Bottom line, both sides have to make sure that justice is blind, but not deaf as well.