Hearing from the Deaf
When it comes to language, while the deaf and hearing use the same written form of English, when “spoken,” American Sign Language employs very different forms of syntax, expression, word order and grammatical structure as compared to spoken English. As a result, sometimes, especially with deaf people older than the so-called Generation X, the norms of spoken American Sign Language become intermingled with a deaf person’s written English, often to the extent that it causes a language barrier. Therefore, practitioners must be sensitive when communicating with a deaf person and realize that sometimes written communication may not be as effective as it would be with a hearing person.
In addition to the above, a common misconception among the hearing is that the deaf can simply lip read in order to effectively communicate. Unfortunately, lip reading is a very inexact science, withmany words unsuccessfully read during a typical conversation. Even if the general gist of an attorney’s point is communicated, this is insufficient, as legal advice is generally fairly complicated and requires, as much as practicable, the full understanding of the client and not simply getting the gist across. Besides, not all deaf people have the skill of lip reading; presuming that they do is simply a hearing person’s stereotype of the deaf.
The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits an attorney from denying services because of an “absence of auxiliary aids and services.” These services include a sign language interpreter; however, a firm is not required to use an interpreter if it would result in an “undue burden.” While the cost for the interpreter is to be absorbed by the attorney, an attorney may bill for the extra time it may take to effectively communicate with a deaf client. In order to offset some of these costs, the Pennsylvania and Philadelphia bar associations established the Interpreter Access Fund. In addition, it may be possible to secure a tax credit for an attorney’s special expenditures to serve a deaf person pursuant to the Disability Access Credit.
Finally, a variety of organizations exist to help the deaf navigate the legal system and achieve justice. These organizations include the Disabilities Rights Network, the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, the Legal Clinic for the Disabled, the National Association for the Deaf, and deaflegal.org. It is worthwhile for an attorney to investigate each of these if one intends to represent the deaf on a regular basis.
Originally published on May 18, 2012 in “The Legal Intelligencer Blog” and can be found here.