Perils of the Pen: Note Writing Not Fair Communication For Deaf Defendants

Many police, criminal justice and court officials assume the since a deaf person asks for a paper and pencil or a computer screen that they can communicate through writing. This seldom is the case. They typically ask for paper and pencil or the computer screen because they have no other recourse. Routinely police officers and jail officials do not provide sign language interpreters during the interrogations, the arrest and the booking at jail. These situations are stressful, anxious and frustrating for the deaf suspects because they often don’t know why they are charged and then are left out of the communication around them during the arrest. When policemen resort to note writing, they set up a one-way communication that is slow, and cumbersome with the danger of retrieving inaccurate information. As many deaf defendants are illiterate, they cannot write well in English. They often have difficulty answering the policeman’s written questions about the events in question. Written responses both ways are often terse, truncated, and abrupt. Handwriting may be sloppy and illegible for both parties. Whereas note writing might be acceptable when the jail officials are seeking concrete information like instructions for where to stand for a mug shot, note writing should not be used for more complex interactions where miscommunications can place the deaf person in legal jeopardy. Policemen can do their job better by getting accurate accounting of details as well as all sides of a story, particularly in a domestic dispute when they allow the deaf defendants to fully communicate with their sign language through an interpreter. In one case, a jail official gave a pen to a deaf defendant on her way to her cell and wrote a note: Take this pen with you so you can talk with your cell-mates.  Instead of providing a jail orientation including the inmate handbook with a sign language interpreter who can explain the rules and regulations of the jail, this deaf defendant just got a pen! This is hardly equal access to information and communication in jail. Even for those deaf defendants who have higher reading levels, still note writing is not effective communication. It is only with a qualified sign language interpreter can the deaf person fully participate in the interactions with police, jail, and courtroom officials using their preferred and primary language of American Sign Language. A pen and paper or computer screen just doesn’t cut it.

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