Getting the Deaf a Fair Hearing

Vol. 42 No. 3

By

NICOLE ISRAEL, a 3L at New York Law School, is student editor of Student Lawyer.

Talila Lewis gives voice to the voiceless. Lewis, a 3L from American University Washington College of Law, has an ambitious schedule— holding a day job as a paralegal, attending classes, and running her nonprofit called HEARD, Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf.

“We work to educate the public about abuse against the deaf and disabled in the justice system.”

While interning at a public defender’s office, Lewis was intrigued by a deaf man’s case. He had been imprisoned for a murder that, after some research, she believed he did not commit. According to Lewis, this man’s conviction was caused by three failures: First, the police department did not provide sign language interpreters during his interrogation. Second, the detectives and attorneys failed to perform investigative due diligence with regard to deaf culture and communication. Third, the deaf man was ignorant of the law and his rights.

When people in the deaf community began contacting Lewis about similar cases, she realized that our justice system was failing deaf people. Through her own investigation, she began communicating with numerous deaf prisoners. Lewis said conditions of these prisoners’ confinement were so intolerable that prisoners often wanted Lewis to focus on making the prison experience more hospitable instead of pursuing leads that may lead to proving their innocence.

Lewis found attorneys who were interested in helping. Unfortunately, those attorneys had no knowledge of deaf culture and couldn’t communicate with deaf prisoners. Lewis then contacted two friends—an interpreter and an attorney. The three launched HEARD with its mission focusing on providing equal access to justice for deaf people.

HEARD has volunteers nationwide who assist deaf prisoners and defendants by conducting research, assisting with access to justice issues, investigating possible wrongful convictions, and providing legal education. A major problem HEARD works on is the varying sign language dialects used throughout the country. Even though both parties are using sign language, they may be communicating very different meanings. Additionally, many lawyers aren’t fluent in sign language basics. This leads to wrongful convictions stemming from miscommunication between deaf and hearing individuals.

“I want to make the system accessible for people who are deaf and hard of hearing, and stop the abuse in the justice system.”

Recently, HEARD lobbied the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to bring an end to exorbitant prisoner telephone rates. These rates disproportionately impact deaf and hearing-impaired prisoners and their family members. In August, HEARD celebrated a victory when the FCC ended the high rates.

On her quest to be heard, Lewis plans to become a public interest lawyer once she graduates while continuing her work to raise awareness about the disabled—and encourages all law students to follow their passion.

“It’s challenging to have people be their best self. It’s about understanding that human potential is far and beyond anything we can imagine. If you push yourself beyond your limits, you can do anything.” n

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