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Justice is Blind, But is it Also Deaf?

Justice is supposed to be blind, but can it also serve the deaf? One of the most legally underserved groups in America is the deaf. The deaf community is enigmatic. It is said that Americans and the British are separated by a common language. The relationship between the hearing and the deaf is similar; although both speak a common language, they are separated by vastly different modes of communication, which creates a challenge for a hearing attorney attempting to represent a deaf client.

Over the years, technology has made it possible to improve communication between the hearing and the deaf. In the second half of the 20th century, the teletypewriter (TTY) and telecommunication device for the deaf (TDD) were invented, which enabled the deaf to communicate with one another over telephone lines through a typewriter-like apparatus. The deaf and hearing could speak to one another over the telephone by calling 711. 711 called a relay service where a hearing person, using a TTY/TDD, would type the hearing person’s words to the deaf person and read the deaf person’s words to the hearing.

With the advent of the Internet, the ability of the hearing and deaf to communicate with each other has advanced exponentially. The deaf first, like the hearing, used e-mail to great effect. However, it was the introduction of instant messaging that truly brought the deaf community into the 21st century. Whether it is through AOL IM, Yahoo messenger or MSN messenger, or newer software like Skype, typed communication between the deaf and between the deaf and hearing has become nearly instantaneous and extremely convenient. Instant messaging, almost single-handedly, has led to the near-obsolescence of TTY and TDD communication.

Instant messaging now includes the use of webcams. As the deaf communicate visually through their hands, web-camming while instant messaging has completely revolutionized deaf communication. Advancing even further, now the deaf can call one another over the telephone using their televisions to serve as videophones, a la Star Trek. Using videophones, much like the now-antiquated 711, the deaf and hearing can communicate through a relay service where the deaf person signs to an interpreter over videophone and the interpreter speaks to the hearing person over a standard telephone. Indeed, technology has now reached such heights that a hearing person can call a deaf person over the videophone relay and a deaf person can now answer himself using the internal camera and screen on his smartphone to communicate over videophone.

Needless to say, opportunities for communication between the hearing and the deaf are greater than ever in human history. These technologies should make it possible for a hearing attorney to be able to serve the deaf community better than ever and the practitioner can easily avail himself or herself of them as they are all now standard elements to any Internet service.

Originally published on March 6, 2012 in “The Legal Intelligencer Blog” and can be found here.

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