About nine percent of the American population is either deaf or hard of hearing. And as baby boomers reach their senior years, the percentage is going to increase. So the chance of you dealing with a deaf person or someone who is hard of hearing is a distinct possibility and one you should be prepared for.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) makes it very clear that hearing impaired people are entitled to the same level of service from law enforcement officers as anyone else. So it's your job to accommodate people with hearing loss and to provide them with the same levels of protection and service as any other people in your jurisdiction.
About the ADA
The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990, and it is one of America's most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation. It prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else. The ADA is enforced through complaints, lawsuits, consent decrees, settlement agreements, and mediation.
Many law enforcement agencies get educated on the ADA the hard way by being found in noncompliance of the law and suffering the ramifications. Such ADA violations by law enforcement rarely go ignored by the media, and they draw negative attention to the agency. What's truly sad is that upon examination, many incidents are preventable and therefore totally unnecessary.
Most law enforcement ADA complaints stem from a wrongful arrest, failure to reasonably accommodate the disabled person during an arrest, or insufficient training. If the finding is against the agency, it has the opportunity to enter into voluntary compliance or face civil action in federal court.
You can gauge how important the ADA is to your own agency by seeing how much treatment the ADA gets in your policy and procedures. With regard to the deaf or hard of hearing, if your agency gives you little to no guidance, I would suggest that members of your command staff rethink policy and take the proper steps to reduce the agency's liability. If they are not easily convinced, just have them Google "police and the mistreatment of the deaf," and they will see how important this issue can be.
Under the ADA, you don't have to provide an interpreter for simple transactions. These include checking a license or giving directions to a location. The ADA also does not make you stop to provide services before going forward with an in-progress call. However, you might have to provide an interpreter for long or complicated transactions like conducting interviews, if the person being interviewed normally relies on an interpreter to understand what others are saying.
Understand that sign language is a language, and people who use sign language as their primary communication need interpreters just like non-English speakers do. It's also important that the interpreter be impartial. Don't ask a family member or companion to interpret for you because they might be emotionally compromised, take sides, and give you a biased translation.
You also can't expect the hearing impaired to provide you with an interpreter. The ADA places the burden on the law enforcement agency to provide communication aids or services to effectively communicate unless otherwise excluded by law.
To help you properly execute your duties with regard to persons who are hearing impaired. The U.S. Department of Justice lists these practical tips for consideration whenever possible:
- Before speaking, get the person's attention with a wave of the hand or a gentle tap on the shoulder.
- Face the person and do not turn away while speaking.
- Try to converse in a well-lit area.
- Do not cover your mouth or chew gum.
- If a person is wearing a hearing aid, do not assume he or she can hear you well.
- Minimize background noise and other distractions whenever possible.
- When you are communicating orally, speak slowly and distinctly. Use facial expressions to reinforce what you are saying.
- Use visual aids whenever possible such as pointing to printed information on a citation or other document.
- Remember that only about one third of spoken words can be understood by speech reading.
- When communicating in writing, keep in mind that some individuals who use sign language may lack good English reading and writing skills.
- If someone with a hearing disability cannot understand you, write a note to ask them what communication aids or services are needed.
- If a sign language interpreter is requested, be sure to ask which language the person uses. American Sign Language (ASL) and Signed English are the most common.
- When you are interviewing a witness or a suspect or engaging in any complex conversation with a person whose primary language is sign language, a qualified interpreter is usually needed to ensure effective communication.
- When using an interpreter, look and speak directly at the deaf person and not the interpreter.
- Talk at your normal rate or slightly slower if you normally speak fast.
- Only one person should speak at a time.
- Use short sentences and simple words.
Law enforcement contacts with deaf subjects can be very serious. During my earliest encounter with a deaf suspect, I almost shot him. I didn't know he was deaf, and he started reaching in his jacket for what I thought was a gun. So I drew down on him. Then as any young first-year rookie would do, I started screaming commands at him; because any rookie knows, if the subject doesn't understand you the first time, shouting louder always helps you get your point across. As it turns out, he wasn't reaching for a gun but for a laminated card that explained he was deaf, a mute, and had directions for obtaining an emergency contact. When his emergency contact arrived, who was also a qualified interpreter, we sorted everything out.
Would I do anything different now that I have 26 years of experience under my belt? Outside of not shouting at the man like a man with his hair on fire, I would still draw down on anybody I thought was reaching for a gun. What has changed is that I now consider the possibility that the person may be disabled and make that part of my decision-making process.
Unfortunately, many officers don't take disabilities into consideration, and they make the evening news. If you are not familiar with how to properly deal with the hearing impaired or the handling of other disability issues, I strongly recommend you spend some time on the ADA.gov Web page.
You'd be surprised how many agencies wait for the results of a lawsuit before they change their ways. Don't get caught up in that and arm yourself with good information. If you fail to do so, you are doing a terrible disservice to the person with the disability and run the risk of negatively impacting your career and your agency.
Amaury Murgado is a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office. He is a retired Army Reserve master sergeant, has more than 25 years of law enforcement experience, and has been a lifelong student of martial arts.