When the owner of this Blog, contracted me to build and manage the site, it was not because of my knowledge of the Deaf community, nor my understanding of the struggle of Deaf prisoners.
I’m not a psychologist, an attorney or an ASL interpreter. I’m an engineer, who recently discovered he has a penchant for writing. I was given this opportunity because I had the requisite Internet skills to help bring the owner’s vision to fruition.
In fact, it had never really occurred to me that there were deaf people in prison. Oh, I rather figured a certain percentage of the prison population might well be deaf, since the prison population in America is a microcosm of the overall population. Nevertheless, it never actually occurred to me that there may be a significant number, or that these people would bear an inordinate amount of the suffering that is prison life.
Since having begun this project however, I have learned a lot. Too much in fact, for the scope of this article – so I’d like to focus on two of the major lessons learned.
I’ll begin with a quick anecdote. This week, I had the opportunity to interview a deaf female victim of legal abuse. This unique experience was made possible by a relay service. The deaf individual signs into a video camera – videophone device, which is sent – via the Internet – to an interpreter. The interpreter reads the sign and speaks to a relay operator, who in turn speaks to me. When I speak, the whole process is reversed. This is truly a miraculous system, and it makes communication that would otherwise be impossible – commonplace.
During our conversation, at one point, I asked her why she hadn’t told the arresting officers a certain pertinent fact that would have helped her cause. There was a long pause at the other end of the phone – and not due to the relay operator’s delay lag.
After a moment, I heard the operator’s voice in the interrogative. “Tell?”
Here’s my point. I’ve learned that Deafness isn’t merely an inability to hear. More often, it’s an inability to communicate. If you were born deaf, chances are quite good that you never learned how to speak. Not only, can you not understand those whom you’re trying to talk to, but they can’t understand you. They may think you’re drunk, high on drugs or just plain stupid. They may confuse your fear and frustration with violence. In a job – like police work – where these people are constantly faced with life or death realities, the reaction to someone grunting and waving their arms around might well be one of self-defense.
Growing up, we learned to read and write by sitting in a class with others our age as they learned those same skills. We’d sound out words and the teachers would orally correct us when we made a mistake. The process of learning to read and write became homogenous with the process of learning to speak – and to hear. Not true for the Deaf.
Many Deaf receive their early schooling through something known as mainstreaming – being sent to a normal public school, alongside hearing children. These students find it exceedingly difficult, and not simply because the curriculum isn’t designed for those who cannot speak or hear English, but also because of the cruelty and unsociability of the other students. Alas, I myself – too young to know any better – am guilty of that very act.
A minority perhaps but nonetheless a surprising number of Deaf, are illiterate. Think of the horror of this. You’re being arrested. For what, you don’t know. In fact, you may not even understand the concept of arrest at all. First thing – they cuff your hands behind your back. The only communication you know is now gone. It’s as if they had gagged you with duct tape. All kinds of shouting, hitting and intimidations are going on – and not only can you not understand them, but they cannot understand you. Finally, they figure out that you’re deaf. They search the cruiser and come up with a postage stamp sized scrap of paper and a pen that doesn’t work. They tell you to write what you have to say, but you can’t write! You’ve been raised speaking with your hands – speaking as a first language – something completely alien to them.
Even those individuals who speak a foreign language have the advantage over you, because they’ve managed to pick up enough broken English to get by, and the chances that someone in the police station speaks Spanish, German or French are far better than the chances they speak Sign.
Lip-reading? Well, I’ve learned that lip-reading is about as effective as crossing the Rockies on a bicycle. You can do it, but it ain’t gonna be easy.
Here’s the 2nd big lesson for me. In trying to find contributors, stories, and other content for this Blog, I’ve discovered that there is a whole world of people out there, who have something to say, but lack either access to the Internet, or the skills to use it. There are people who have stories to tell, who want to contribute, who want to enlighten and entertain. Many of these people are far more comfortable, hand writing a letter and mailing it, than they are setting up avatars and logging in to Web sites.