The Unseen Disability

The Unseen Disability

The startling appearance of blue lights flashing in an average driver’s rearview mirror is unsettling to say the least. But when the driver’s ability to communicate with the approaching officer is diminished by hearing loss, the sense of panic and anxiety is heightened.

Nearly 700,000 Kentuckians reported they are deaf or hard of hearing in the most recent census. That number represents 16 percent of the commonwealth’s citizens, and the number is growing, according to Kentucky Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Executive Director Virginia Moore.

“The third largest health risk in the U.S. is hearing loss,” Moore said. “It is something we all have to deal with. Law enforcement, based on the sheer number of hard-of-hearing individuals out there, is going to be facing someone weekly – if not daily – who has some type of hearing loss.”

The communication barrier between peace officers and those with diminished hearing can present a significant safety risk for both parties. A person who doesn’t hear the officer’s commands may be interpreted as non-compliant. A deaf person who uses his voice to speak may not hear his own sound and could be loud or appear belligerent, when in fact he has no idea how he is being heard, Moore said.

The citizen may indicate with his or her hands that he or she cannot hear, but the officer could easily miss the sign. Or in an effort to communicate, the driver could reach for a notepad and pen, sparking an immediate safety concern for the officer anticipating a possible weapon.

“When I was little, my mother was pulled over one time and I saw her immediately do that,” Moore said. “I also saw her dig into her purse, and when she raised her head back up, the officer had his gun drawn. It scared me to death. It didn’t scare my mother, she was quite the lady. But there are certain things I think officers and individuals being pulled over need to realize may be a concern.”

Recognize the Disability

Law enforcement interactions with the deaf and hard-of-hearing community have received national attention in recent years because of tragedies caused by the communication barrier. A North Carolina deaf man was shot and killed after a pursuit that ended near his home. His brother later reported to media that his sibling feared police because of prior tense interactions.

A New York woman won a $750,000 lawsuit against the NYPD after she called 911 for help evicting a tenant, and instead of obtaining an American Sign Language interpreter to assist her, officers kept her in a precinct lockup for more than 24 hours.

“First and foremost, there is the communication barrier with ASL being a totally different language,” said Ted Baran, chief of police for the Galludet University Police. “One of the first things I try to tell officers is that deafness really is an unseen disability. Your initial contact with a deaf person is not like an initial contact with a person in a wheelchair or a blind person with a cane in hand.”

Galludet University in Washington, D.C. is the country’s only university designed to be barrier-free for the deaf and hard of hearing. Baran, who has served as the school’s police chief for the past six years, grew up with two deaf parents and understands the community’s struggles. He now helps train law enforcement to offer helpful tips and increase safety during interactions with the deaf and hard of hearing.

The biggest challenge Baran tells officers first is recognizing the disability quickly.

Moore echoed Baran’s thoughts about recognizing the disability, noting that even a person wearing a visible hearing aid might still be unable to hear and communicate effectively.

“If a person is wearing glasses, you’re going to assume they see you,” she said. “But if [a hearing-impaired person] has hearing aids on, you can’t make that assumption. They could simply be for environmental noises and not allow the person to have clarity of voice or understanding.”

The Kentucky Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, established 35 years ago by the state legislature, is designed to act as an advocate – among many other responsibilities – for the hearing-impaired community. One way the commission previously worked to improve communication between law enforcement and the deaf is through the creation of visor communication cards.

Created in conjunction with the Kentucky State Police, the cards are large, colorful and laminated for longevity. There are four communication cards. One for law enforcement offers tips and images to aid communication. The other three cards are distributed to those who identify themselves as deaf, hard of hearing or oral deaf, Moore said.

The visor cards were an early part of a three-pronged approach Moore described to improve safety and communication. The second prong recently was successfully completed through the passage of Senate Bill 189, Moore said. The bill created a new section of Kentucky Revised Statute allowing information to be included in the Kentucky vehicle registration system indicating a vehicle operator may be deaf or hard of hearing.

It is voluntary for hearing-impaired citizens to notify the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet of their disability. However, upon addition to the database, an officer who stops an individual who has supplied their information will be notified before they approach the vehicle that there may be a communication problem with the driver, Moore said.

“Some people have asked, ‘Why don’t you put that symbol with an ear with a slash through it on your car or driver’s license?’” Moore said. “It’s very important to realize it is a safety risk. If I had that on my driver’s license and were to lose my license, if somebody found it they would realize this person has severe hearing loss. They might wait until they go to sleep at night and break in, or go in behind them and steal their car or whatever. You don’t want to have an indication on your car or have labels placed anywhere to immediately show the general public you have this disability.”

The Next Step

The final piece of Moore’s three-prong approach is a national effort to establish curriculum for law enforcement training and standardize that training across the country. Moore said she will be meeting this summer with colleagues from multiple states – including Chief Baran – to discuss developing the curriculum. Discussions with some of Kentucky’s law enforcement training leaders already has begun.

“I am hoping Kentucky will be the lead on this,” Moore said. “Other states have different types of training like what [Baran] does. What we want to do is develop a whole curriculum around different scenarios, from pulling people over and handcuffing to walking up on a deaf person and having to relate with them one-on-one and domestic violence between deaf couples. You name it, we are going to try to come up with the curriculum for different scenarios.”

Moore and Baran agreed interaction between the hearing impaired and officers is a two-way street. There is just as much responsibility on the shoulders of those with the disability to learn and understand what to expect when they interact with officers.

“In so many situations, a lot of times what happens is the behavior of that person proves to be alarming to the officers, and they immediately have to be defensive,” Moore said. “I understand that. But if they could take a beat, put this in their [mental] file cabinet of the things they go through immediately to think, ‘Wait a minute, is this person signing? Is this sound I’m hearing aggressive? Is it a threat or are they not hearing me?’

“I don’t know how we ask officers to do that when they have so many other things to consider,” Moore continued. “But unfortunately with the growing[deaf and hard of hearing] population, we have to find a way.”

Did you know?

The Kentucky Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing provided the following statistics to help better understand hearing loss in America.

  • Nearly 33 percent of all Americans older than 65 have hearing loss.
  • One in five teens are estimated to experience some type of hearing loss – 80 percent report hearing loss from loud noise.
  • Nine out of every 10 children born deaf are born to parents who can hear.
  • More than 30 million Americans are exposed to dangerous noise levels at work.
  • Loss of hearing is the number one war wound among American veterans. Approximately 2.3 million veterans receive either disability compensation for service-connected hearing disabilities or are in treatment for hearing-related issues.
  • Men are more likely to experience hearing loss than women.
  • An estimated 50 million Americans experience tinnitus, also known as ringing in the ears. Ninety percent of those also have hearing loss.

Six Tips for Communicating with the Hearing Impaired

Galludet University Police Chief Ted Baran personally understands both the challenges of the deaf community and those faced daily by peace officers. The son of deaf parents and a 20-year law enforcement veteran, Baran is committed to passing along his experience and knowledge in hopes of encouraging safer and more successful interactions between the two communities.

“There is so much anxiety out there with how the deaf and police interact because things can go south very fast,” Baran said. “This is where some of the issues have come up where use of force goes from nothing to shooting somebody because the person was perceived as not responding or not adhering to an officer’s commands.

“It’s not often deaf people will have direct communication with officers, and not many officers know sign language,” Baran continued.

Baran offered the following tips for best practices when officers interact with a person whose hearing is impaired.

Be Patient - First and foremost, be patient with the deaf person, Baran said. It sounds easy, but some officers are more patient than others about communicating and being clear. Taking time to establish the best form of communication for the deaf person will help ease their intimidation.

Lip Reading can be Ineffective - Most people think people with diminished hearing can read lips, but this is not the case, Baran said. Only about 30 percent of the English language is readable on lips.

Be aware of Lighting - Lighting is an issue. In the dark, make sure the deaf person can see you clearly, Baran said.

Don’t Depend on Family to Communicate - Family members such as children or siblings who may be present may be more adept at communicating with the deaf or hearing-impaired individual. Baran urges officers not to rely on them to interpret between them and the deaf person.

“It’s completely unacceptable,” he said.

Use Available Technology - Many hearing-impaired individuals carry a pen and paper to communicate. However, Baran recently taught a class of officers that as most people have smart phones, a deaf person may attempt to communicate through a text message or notepad app on their phone.

“Their fear on the other side is that it won’t be accepted as a method of communication,” Baran said. “I told my class to use their own phone to type out why they are being stopped.”

Get an Interpreter - The above tips are only effective for initial stops and interactions, Baran said. Anything that goes beyond that requires an interpreter. Know how to get one, especially before any interviews are conducted.

“Respect the deaf person who needs that communication instead of trying to bypass it,” he said.

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