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Language and the Law in Deaf Communities. Ceil Lucas, Editor. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 2003, 192 pp. $55.00 hardcover.

Deaf students sued the University of California in 1999 over lack of interpreters. READ ARTICLE.


Up Against The Law

A review by Emily Alexander.

I attended Gallaudet University at the same time Amy Rowley did. One of my classmates pointed Amy out to me, explaining that her parents had sued her school district for failing to provide a sign language interpreter and that the case had gone all the way to the Supreme Court. I presumed that I knew the outcome of the case -- wasn't she entitled to an interpreter? Too bad she had to go to the Supreme Court to get one.

Many Deaf suspects are read their rights and interrogated by police officers who "know some sign" -- with tragic consequences.

Years later, when I actually read the case, I was shocked. The Court had held that disabled students were entitled only to a "basic floor of opportunity," not to a "potential-maximizing education." Since Amy was performing adequately in her grade school classes, and advancing to the next grades (despite understanding less than half of what was said in the classroom), the Court determined that she was receiving at least some educational benefit and thus did not need an interpreter.

The Court's decision in Board of Education v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982) is just one example of how deaf people's communication needs are disregarded in legal settings -- both in court cases involving access issues, and in the legal process itself.

Language and the Law in Deaf Communities, the ninth volume in the Sociolinguistics in Deaf Communities Series, focuses on forensic linguistics -- the intersection between language and the law -- and its applications in real settings involving deaf people. Individual contributors have backgrounds in criminal defense, disability law, sign language interpretation, sociolinguistics, and forensic linguistics. While previous volumes in this series have primarily addressed the linguistic and cultural aspects of Deafness, this collection of articles explores the challenges faced by deaf people in the legal system, with examples involving deaf litigants, jurors, and criminal suspects, and focuses on communication access for Deaf signers. Specific issues faced by deaf/blind people, or by deaf people who communicate orally, are not included here.

The authors seem to presume that readers of this book have at least a basic knowledge of cultural Deafness -- that readers know that American Sign Language (ASL) is a language in its own right, and not simply a system of gestures; and that because deaf people have little meaningful access to spoken English, their mastery of written English is often far behind that of hearing people.

This is not a book focusing only on reasonable accommodation, or on the legal system's failure to provide resources needed for effective communication. There is nothing, for example, about access issues faced by deaf legal professionals, despite the fact that even deaf attorneys experience attitudinal barriers to access and difficulties securing auxiliary services from the courts. The articles in this book instead emphasize how, because of the legal system's misconceptions about deafness and ASL, deaf people's rights to access are compromised.

Forensic linguist Roger Shuy, in "The Language Problems of Minorities in a Legal Setting," provides an example of how a deaf litigant benefited from the testimony of a forensic linguist, as an aid to reconstructing the event which prompted the litigation.

In "Trampling Miranda: Interrogating Deaf Suspects," Rob Hoopes asks, "What effect does the level of interpreting competence have on the ability to interpret linguistically complex discourse such as the Miranda warning and police interrogation?" As it turns out, quite a significant effect. While advanced signers' interpretations of the Miranda warning and a police interrogation were understood by Deaf subjects, the "interpretations" provided by beginning and intermediate signers were at best confusing. This study demonstrates the enormous implications for Deaf suspects. Many are read their rights and interrogated by police officers who "know some sign." The reader need not only imagine the effect this has on Deaf suspects -- a case study is included.

It seems intuitive that greater signing skills would correlate with increased comprehensibility of one's signed interpretation. I was not surprised to learn that Deaf people had great difficulty understanding interpretations made by beginning signers, or that advanced signers' interpretations were mostly clear and understandable. I was, however, struck by the fact that interpretations by signers with intermediate skills were not much more comprehensible than those by beginning signers. I wondered whether a similar study using a different target language would yield similar results, or whether there is something different about ASL. I also wondered how the interpreters in this study would perform on a test of their receptive skills, their abilities to interpret ASL into spoken English.

Susan Mather and Robert Mather discuss the use of court interpreters for deaf jurors. Their paper, "Court Interpreting for Signing Jurors: Just Transmitting or Interpreting?" summarizes federal and some state laws that provide for court access for deaf people. Deaf people cannot be excluded from jury duty on the basis of their deafness, and courts must provide effective communication access, whether through a qualified court interpreter or other auxiliary service provider.

This seems straightforward, but the legal community and the interpreting community have disagreed on how best to provide a signed rendition of spoken English. The legal community has demanded that interpreters provide verbatim interpretation, but it is "impossible and ineffective for a sign language interpreter to provide literal interpretation by adhering strictly to spoken English." Mather and Mather believe that interpreters should be encouraged to provide accurate and legally equivalent interpretations, using whatever linguistic tools are appropriate, and recommend that courts clarify their policies for sign language interpretation.

In "When 'Equal' Means 'Unequal' -- And Other Legal Conundrums," Sarah Geer examines the history of and justifications for "legalese," the distinctive and often-criticized language used by lawyers. Readers may be amused to note that consecutive sections of this paper are titled "Need For Precision" and "Need For Vagueness." Geer describes the role each of the three branches of government has in developing legal language, then goes on to discuss the development and application of the Equal Protection Clause and how this mandate applies to people with disabilities.

The bulk of Geer's paper examines federal disability laws and how they apply to deaf people. While standards for architectural access are clear-cut and precise, standards for communication access are less well defined. The ADA requires only that communication be "effective," not equivalent to that enjoyed by nondisabled people. Similarly, IDEA requires that schoolchildren with disabilities receive a "free, appropriate, public education," not that they receive the same quality of education that nondisabled youth receive.

Finally, in "Misunderstandings, Wrongful Convictions, and Deaf People," George Castelle summarizes the common theme shared by the book's other articles -- the potential injustice faced by those who do not understand (and are not understood by) the legal system. He also introduces some new material, including information about the legal standards for the admission of expert witness testimony.

This is an academic book. A reader who is unfamiliar with deafness, disability rights, law or linguistics would likely find it a challenge. However, readers with backgrounds in any of these fields will probably find this book useful in supplementing their existing knowledge.

Posted 6/23/2004

Emily Alexander lives in San Francisco. She was involved in the 1999 lawsuit brought by deaf students against the University of California..

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