Home > Article from newspaper > The deaf face challenges when interacting with law enforcement

The deaf face challenges when interacting with law enforcement

August 12, 2007

 Sunshine Dalton, Staff Writer

Staff photo/Sunshine Dalton – Detention Officer Josh Zarasvand familiarizes himself with the TTY phone available for deaf offenders at the Pottawattamie County Correctional Facility.

Jerry Siders expected some miscommunication with the police officer who pulled him over for expired tags, but he didn’t expect to be held at gunpoint.

“I decided to get out of the car, and the policeman put the gun right up to my face,” Siders said. “I pointed to my ears and he knew I was not a dangerous person.”

Siders is deaf and spoke through an operator for Sorenson Video Relay services.

“I pointed to a pad in a pocket that I had inside my coat and once he saw that we communicated by writing,” said Siders. “Now I know to put paper beside me.”

Siders graduated from the Iowa School for the Deaf and attended college at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, where he received a degree in education. He is now a Social Studies teacher at ISD. Though he currently lives in Omaha, he commutes everyday and has spent 80 percent of his life in Council Bluffs with the hope of moving back someday.

Jeanne Prickett, Ph.d, Superintendent at ISD, said approximately 25 percent of currently enrolled students reside locally. She added that Council Bluffs is likely to have a higher number of deaf residents than other metropolitan areas because many graduates of ISD choose to stay in the area.

“We try to ensure our students are prepared for almost anything including, God forbid, negative interactions with law enforcement,” Prickett said.

“I had another experience in a car accident that wasn’t my fault. The other person in the car that hit me talked to the police officer and said I was (at fault). The officer was paying attention to the hearing person first. They had the advantage. They thought I was just a dumb deaf person and I kept trying to interrupt,” Siders said. “It took time to make him understand.”

Other people with disabilities have had worse luck dealing with law enforcement, according to Siders.

“I have also talked to deaf people who rely on signs and get handcuffed right away. It takes off their glasses because they need hands. They could be in jail a few days before they realize they are deaf,” Siders said. He explained that when people who sign get upset their hands move very quickly and an officer may mistake them for an unruly suspect.

The Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1992 is a federal civil rights law that is designed to prevent discrimination against disabled citizens during everyday activities. In cases of hearing disabilities, a qualified interpreter is required to ensure that person has an equal advantage. This law extends to law enforcement agencies and the courts as well.

“I have no negative feelings about police officers,” Siders said. “I do know they have their jobs to do and policemen don’t want to shoot. The next time I will act stupid. I will point to my ears and mouth and won’t grab something. I will point to the pad in my pocket. I don’t mind writing back and forth.”

According to Pottawattamie County Sheriff Jeff Danker, the most convenient method of communication between a deputy and a person with a hearing disability is through pen and paper.

“You could know some basic signs but you have to practice with it and really know it to be fluent,” Danker said. “We could put a person through schooling but it won’t stick unless you use it on a regular basis.”

Prickett feels this is not an effective method because the language barrier runs deeper than sound.

“You have communication breakdowns if it’s in English instead of their first language, American Sign Language,” Prickett said. She said even the sentence structures of the two languages are “very different.”

Siders, who is too easily confused by lip reading, felt he should have had an interpreter present at each incident but was sure that one would not be available without advanced notice.

“The biggest challenge for law enforcement is to actually have (an interpreter) when you need one,” said Prickett.

The Pottawattamie County Sheriff Department, Council Bluffs Police Department and personnel at the Pottawattamie County Jail all utilize a rotating list of certified sign language interpreters that is kept at the Emergency 911 Communications Center. The translators are citizens residing in Council Bluffs who are contacted as needed.

Other options include relay services where licensed interpreters are staffed 24-hours a day. A deaf person can communicate through a TTY phone such as the one they have available for inmates at the Pottawattamie County Jail. TTY devices connect to a normal phone line but are equipped with a keyboard.

Detention Officer Supervisor Dane Molgaard has used the TTY phone on duty when an arrested person needed to arrange bail.

“In the eight years I’ve been here I’ve probably used it twice. They use it more on other shifts,” Molgaard said. He said staff members are instructed to familiarize themselves with the process and terminology because users will type in shortcuts. “It’s kind of like texting.”

Siders uses a video relay service that utilizes live videoconferencing technology. On one end of the video is the deaf party. He sees a relay operator who is translating in actual time for the caller on the other end.

All it would require is a videoconference device that is compatible with a relay center, and law enforcement agencies would have immediate access to a licensed interpreter, according to Prickett.

District Court Administrator Kent Wirth said they have used “real time” interpreting in the courtroom in the past where an official court reporter translates through a laptop computer. They also have an active list of qualified interpreters with legal training.

Siders said the way to improve communication between the deaf community and law enforcement is through a greater understanding of the situation. He suggested a workshop where authorities could work with hearing-impaired individuals for a few days and learn a few basic signs.

“It would be nice if the Council Bluffs Police Department had a 24-hour on duty interpreter,” said Siders. “It would make it so much easier. It might not be possible, but it would be a very good idea.”

  1. August 12, 2007 at 7:44 pm

    pwds have had such a horrible time with law enforcement, thanks for posting.

  2. Stephen Hardy
    August 14, 2007 at 12:13 am

    The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is the short title of United States Public Law 101-336, 104 Stat. 327 (July 26, 1990), codified at 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., signed into law on July 26, 1990 by President George H. W. Bush.

    Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Americans_with_Disabilities_Act_of_1990

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