Proper communication vital to serving needs of deaf citizens


When she begins her talks with law enforcement throughout the state of Tennessee, Poppy Steele often begins with a story about a girl named Molly.
Most people don’t understand the story the first time Steele tells it; she uses sign language to relate the tale of Molly’s life. When no one in the room can understand what Steele is telling them, she speaks the story aloud as she signs.
“My name is Molly,” Steele said. “I’m a six-year-old little girl. I love the color purple. I love Skittles. I love ponies. My mom is a drug addict who sells me in exchange for drug money. I can’t tell anyone because I have no family who signs. I have no friends who signs. None of my teachers sign. If help does come, they don’t bring an interpreter.”
Steele said Molly’s story isn’t uncommon among members of the deaf community.
“The truth is, there are Molly’s all over the state of Tennessee,” Steele said to attendees at the TML Annual Conference in Memphis. “Statistics say that 50 percent of deaf children are abused, but the limited studies have been done with college students. Only 5 percent of deaf children make it to college. Of that 5 percent, half say they have been abused. If you extrapolate, the percentage of that other 95 percent of deaf children who are abused is going to be even higher. I’ve heard statistics as high as 90 percent of deaf children experiencing some kind of abuse.”
Additionally, one in four deaf women are the victim of domestic violence and one in three deaf women have been the victims of sexual assault. Incidents of neglect and physical abuse are also 25 percent higher among deaf children than hearing children.
Growing up in a household with two deaf parents led Steele to become the founder and board member of Sign Club Co. Along with her husband, a police officer, she often works with police departments across the state to help with communication.
“Unlike with many disabilities, there aren’t many warning signs that will tell you if someone is deaf,” Steele said. “They may have cochlear implants or hearing aids, but if someone has long hair you wouldn’t see those. The deaf are just like normal people; they just need an accommodation. If you walk into a room full of deaf people and you are the only one who can hear, you are the one who needs an accommodation. Everyone else is speaking a language you don’t understand. Deafness is a different kind of disability. Deafness is only a disability if we make it so. Deafness is about a lack of access to communication.”
Deafness is one of the most common birth defects reported in the U.S. with one in every 1,000 babies born deaf. Approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population has some sort of hearing loss. Despite this, Steele said accommodations often aren’t made for the deaf or hard of hearing.
“I have found that many places are fine paying for a ramp or setting aside a parking space for the handicapped, but you change that request to providing a sign language interpreter, all of a sudden there is an argument,” she said. “This is something people don’t want to provide an accommodation for.”
Of a recent survey of police departments in Tennessee, Steele said 8 percent reported attending a basic ASL training, 56 percent had access to ASL hardware or software, and 39 percent reported using interpreters to deliver Miranda Rights.
All departments have access to live ASL sign interpreters through organizations like Sign Club and the Tennessee Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (TNRID). One of the programs Steele’s company provides helps train officers to interact with the deaf community.
Approximately 98 percent of deaf people receive no education in American Sign Language (ASL). While more than 90 percent of children born deaf are born to hearing parents, only 28 percent of parents say they have used ASL with their children.
“Most of these children are growing up without access to communication from the two most important people in their lives,” Steele said. “This means no one is communicating with them about how to live. I have a deaf friend who didn’t file income taxes for eight years because neither his parents nor anyone at school ever taught him he had to. I can promise you, the IRS did not care about him being deaf. A lot of the time, these people can’t read. If they can’t read, they can’t read a newspaper or the captioning on the news.”
ASL is also a complete language unto itself and therefore cannot be directly translated into writing the way one language could be translated into English. This inability to communicate in the hearing world can have drastic consequences for members of the deaf community.
While 88 percent of people who are deaf – and have no other disability – graduate high school, less than a quarter of deaf Americans graduate college. An estimated 70 percent of the deaf community are chronically underemployed.
Many of the departments reported using reading and writing to communicate with the deaf community, but Steele said this is not the best way to communicate with deaf members of the community.
“Our deaf are graduating on a third to fourth-grade reading level nationally,” she said. “It isn’t that deaf people don’t have the ability to read; we haven’t found the way to best educate them yet. Deaf people understand written language about as well as most of us remember the foreign language we took in high school. If you went to France, you might not be able to understand a police warning or read the language if they handed you a piece of paper with your rights on it. Especially in our rural areas, our deaf do not read at a third grade level as adults. If the person is a child, you can about guarantee you won’t be able to communicate with them through written means.”
While there are live interpreters available, in issues of immediate need Steele said many departments have reported success in the use of video remote interpreting (VRI) services.
“Police departments we have provided VRI training to said that they have found it useful both within and outside their department,” she said. “Members of their gas and electric department were having interactions with the deaf, and because of the inability to communicate, tensions rose. They ended up calling the police department. Now, before tensions rise, the police department brings out the VRI to the call. Now, tensions with every department in the city became better because they have access to this technology. Any department can use this technology; the law only requires police departments to do it.”
In the Tennessee state code, officers are prohibited from using family members or potential abusers as interpreters when investigating abuse situations wherein a child might be a victim or a witness to abuse. A trained and certified interpreter must be used to communicate with the child, either in person or via telecommunications. The interview must be conducted outside the presence of potential abusers.
“A qualified interpreter is required for each part of the legal process,” she said. “No statement taken from a deaf person before the qualified interpreter is present is admissible in court. I have been in situations with deaf children we knew were being abused but because they didn’t use an appropriate interpreter everything the child said was inadmissible in court.”
For more resources on deaf services provided in Tennessee, visit