Any interaction with law enforcement can be frightening and stressful. However, for people who are hard of hearing or deaf, dealing with officers can be especially difficult. It’s been estimated that as many as 9 percent of people may be hearing impaired to some degree. As our population ages, that number will likely rise.
People who are hearing impaired have the same rights when it comes to dealing with law enforcement and the justice system as anyone else. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) details those rights and the accommodations that must be made available.
Law enforcement agencies are required to provide communication aids and other services at no charge to ensure full and accurate communication. This includes interpreters, if necessary, who know the form of sign language used by the hearing-impaired person.
Law enforcement agencies should also provide training to their officers in how to interact with a hearing-impaired person. For example, many people believe that most hearing-impaired people can read lips. In reality, people can accurately get only a third of what someone is telling them through lip reading (also known as speech reading). Another misconception is that anyone wearing a hearing aid is able to hear. However, even with an aid, a person may still be hearing impaired.
An officer may be able to communicate sufficiently with a hearing-impaired person during a traffic stop by some combination of writing notes and lip reading. However, in more serious and complex interactions, they are required to provide an interpreter — for example, if the hearing-impaired person is an arrestee, suspect, victim or witness.
In some cases, it’s acceptable to allow a family member or friend to interpret — particularly if it’s an urgent situation. However, in other cases, such as one of suspected domestic violence, it wouldn’t be appropriate.
A hearing-impaired person can be arrested without an interpreter on the scene if an officer has probable cause. However, an interpreter must be provided as soon as possible if the person requests one.
If you believe that your rights or those of a loved one were violated because officers or others in the justice system failed to provide an interpreter or other services to allow them to communicate and understand throughout their interactions, it’s wise to seek legal guidance.