English: A Major Obstacle For the Deaf Suspect and Deaf Inmate

By Jean F. Andrews

ASL_Painting.jpg (Photo credit: robert.barney)

Police and jail officers are often confused by the many forms of English that come from the mouths and lips, and off the fingers and hands of deaf suspects. Just because the deaf person can speak some words, and lipread the question, “what is your name,” or even sign some words in English with voice, it is often assumed the deaf suspect knows enough English to get by without a qualified sign language interpreter. In one case a neighbor of a deaf suspect knew some Fingerspelling and a police officer assumed she was signing and could interpret his questioning. Often police officers will take out a pad and paper, and begin questioning expecting the deaf suspect to be able to read and write. Even when only fragmented phrases are the result, the officers will believe communication is going along just fine as they add charades, gestures and facial expressions. This comedy of errors continues to the jail, where the suspect is booked, fingerprinted, photographed. Then the Jail officers will speak louder and slower, gesture, and come out with a flurry of forms for the deaf suspect to place his signature on. The expectation is that the deaf person can understand slower speech as well as having a high enough reading level to understand these forms. Further, deaf inmates are expected to read the inmate handbook. Who would want to be in jail and not know the rules and regulations?

English: pictures of 2 sign language interpret...
2 sign language interpreters working together as a team for a student association meeting. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Because mainstreaming has often led to the dumbing-down of deaf education within public education, and the conventional policy of delaying the access of American Sign Language for deaf babies, we are seeing generations of semi-lingual deaf youth and adults who have impoverished skills in both English and ASL. It is the poor language environments that are holding them back in language acquisition. Instead of allowing deaf babies to grow and flourish cognitively, socially, emotionally and linguistically in bilingual ASL/English rich language environments, they flounder and flail in impoverished language environments where they get bits of speech and bits of sign thereby stifling their development of a whole visual language grammar upon which to build emergent English literacy as well as opportunities to acquire auditory/spoken language built on signed concepts. Many emerge from such poor language environments with a jumbled signing of English mixed with visual spatial elements of ASL signing. Most cannot read beyond the 3rd grade level. The result is devastating for them particularly in a jail or prison setting where English is the language used by police and jail officers.

One solution is to make it a police department and jail policy to provide qualified sign language interpreters for signing deaf suspects and inmates. Qualified sign language interpreters have the training and the skill to move their signing interpretation across the continuum from English-like signing, contact signing, and ASL for those suspects and inmates with varied signing skills. For deaf suspects and inmates with more severe language delays a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI) may be needed.

English: A Video Relay Service session, where ...
A Video Relay Service session. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Providing the qualified sign language interpreter accommodation 24/7 may be impractical. But providing qualified sign language interpreters whenever warranted as in all communicative interactions that have serious consequence (i.e. parole hearings) or when the deaf person’s Constitutional Rights are in jeopardy (i.e. Miranda Warning) is critical. For instance, a police officer will want to get the deaf person’s side of the story during a domestic dispute or a suspected drug deal or during the booking stage, or when jail staff need to ask medical and psychological questions or during the classification process and so forth.

Understanding the obstacles deaf suspects and inmates face using English on the hands, on the lips, out of the mouth and in print is complex. More training is needed to disentangle the misconception that a little bit of English will get the deaf suspect and inmate by, in the jail setting. It simply won’t.

Jean F. Andrews is a Reading Specialist and Professor of Deaf Studies/Deaf Education at Lamar University.

16 thoughts on “English: A Major Obstacle For the Deaf Suspect and Deaf Inmate

  1. I remember one story about a deaf rape suspect. The police asked, “did you rape that girl?. The Unqualified interpretor asked “Did you have sex with that girl?” Two very different things. He was convicted based on the ‘confession.’


  2. Yes! English as a second language is the only optimal progression of language development for deaf(Deaf) people, once, that is, the language ‘input environment’ from birth to eight years or so is ASL! Without the latter, the former can’t be accomplished. Thank you Jean for your clear and comprehensive perspective on the devastating effects from assumptions made by all involved in the criminal justice system when it comes to the apprehension and incarceration of deaf persons. It might just be added, that everything you note about the impact of what I refer to as “language deprivation”, still today, of a vast majority of deaf babies and toddlers applies also to all, those in and out of the world of criminal justice. Unfortunately, the entire discussion today is undermined by the huge (economic) push for Cochlear Implanting babies from six months…. But that is another article. Thank you again.

    Carol Finkle M.ed Deaf Education, Temple U Philadelphia,PA M.A. Deafness Rehabilitation, New York University New York, NY


  3. There are many parents who decide to have their deaf child to be implanted, still wish to use sign language. If the child is allowed to grow up bilingual in ASL and in English (spoken, written, signed) then I think they have more of a chance to integrate into both worlds–deaf and hearing.


Leave a Reply to jeanfandrews Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s