By Jean F. Andrews
For many Deaf individuals the parole process is a complex web. And for those Deaf persons who have poor English and sign skills and are not aware of their Constitutional Rights, the stakes are particularly high. What creates this web of confusion?
For one, the rules and regulations of the parole process are presented in abstract language that has severe legal consequences when they are not followed. Secondly, Deaf individuals have extreme difficulty understanding what the courts are requiring them to do because of early language deprivation, gaps in conceptual knowledge and their lack of proficiency in English as well as sign language. Take the case of Gerald D. a 58-year-old prelingually and profoundly deaf man who is now serving in jail after violating his parole. Gerald D. did not understand what was expected of him during the parole process because the parole officer ignored his repeated requests for a sign language interpreter. His Day of Reckoning came when he failed to register with the Sex Offenders Registry, tracking agency, on his birthday. Consequently, his parole was revoked and he was jailed for a second felony.
What went wrong?
The correctional system failed Gerald D. on several accounts. They did not address the unique communication, language and cultural needs of Gerald D. even after the local Deaf Services specialist and a local Deaf pastor who was advocating for him made repeated phone calls, and wrote letters and emails to the parole officer. The parole officer and detectives replied that Gerald D. could understand their lipreading. And what he couldn’t understand, he would get by reading the documents they asked him to put his signature on. This was proof, in their minds, that Gerald D. understood the conditions of his parole.
Criminal justice officials, due to lack of training, often do not understand the language barriers Deaf people face with English–spoken language, speechreading, reading and writing. Becoming Deaf at age 3 months, Gerald D. never learned to talk. His family did not pick up sign language so the communication at home was limited to discussions about basic physical needs. Family discussions centering on ethics and values, appropriate expression of sexuality, the difference between right and wrong behaviors, civic rights and responsibilities could never be learned at home, and neither could these important concepts be adequately learned at school. Gerald D. attended a public school in a special education class whose teachers did not use sign language, so he fell farther and farther behind in school content. While he got a certificate of completion, he did not do high school equivalency work as he was still reading at the second grade level and could barely perform simple basic math. He could text simple words and phrases on his phone, but he could not write a complete simple sentence, thus written communication was not effective in his dealings with the parole process. These underdeveloped English and sign language skills create a condition called linguistic incompetence based on early conceptual knowledge and language deprivation. Deaf persons like Gerald D. learn how to cope with their lack of language and background knowledge by appearing cooperative and nodding their heads when asked questions even though they do not understand what is being asked of them. And this happened to Gerald D. as when the parole officer asked him a question about the forms, he nodded “Yes,” even though he did not fully understand the forms.
What is so difficult about these the parole process forms?
These forms are wordy, contain long words with many syllables, complex grammatical sentences and technical legal vocabulary in words and phrases such as periodic verification of registration, affirmative finding, revocation of my parole, sex offender registration requirements, stipulation, adjudication, and revoked for any violation among others. Using a computerized readability formula, I found these forms to be written at the 10th to 12th grade reading levels. With Gerald D.’s reading level of second grade, reading these forms without a sign language interpreter to translate its meaning is impossible.
What would constitute effective communication for Gerald D. during the parole process?
He would need a qualified sign language interpreter as well as a CDI (certified Deaf interpreter) to break down the concepts and explain those concepts to him. But even with the CDI support, there are no guarantees he would understand the parole concepts and regulations because Gerald D., similar to other Deaf persons who are linguistically incompetent, do not have the background and conceptual knowledge about how the legal system works nor do they understand their Constitutional Rights. Gerald D.’s situation is worse than hearing illiterate persons who can use their spoken English to ask questions. With no sign language interpreter present, Gerald D. cannot understand what is happening around him, related to the parole process.
This complex web of the parole process can only be untangled by a criminal justice system that is educated about the unique language, conceptual, and cultural barriers that Deaf individuals face during the parole process. Only then will Deaf individuals get their Constitutional Rights, similar to those obtained by hearing citizens.
Jean F. Andrews, Ph.D. is a Reading Specialist and Professor Emerita at the Dept of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education of Lamar University.