Deaf Inmates: Void of Accessible Communication

By Dr. Daniel Swartz, CI, CT, SC:L, ED:K-12

I have been interpreting for 31 years, with nearly the last 10 at 360 Translations. I specialize in legal interpreting, which can range from police interrogations to murder trials, and everything in between. And that includes interpreting at jails and prisons for incarcerated deaf offenders. 

Every time I leave a situation where a deaf person is jailed, I feel a sense of emptiness and dismay at the nearly 100% isolation that a deaf inmate faces. Most times, the deaf person is the lone deaf soul at the facility. Even if there are other deaf inmates at the jail/prison, I have never seen them housed in the same pod or cell block with other deaf inmates. I shake my head in wonder, trying to understand the nearly complete shuttering of communication; is it cruel and unusual punishment?

As a society we accept that one who is found guilty of breaking the law must be punished, and that could very well include time behind bars. With the loss of freedom comes the forfeiture of many other things, but should that also include loss of simple conversation and communication with others?

A Simple Call Home?

Video communication supplanted the use of TTYs/TTDs many years ago, but most correctional facilities do not have videophones, relying solely on obsolete equipment that serves no other purpose than to collect dust. Hearing inmates are not only privy to communication in the facility, they have access to family and friends via phone contact. Deaf inmates, by and large, are denied communication access on all fronts, including the placement of a simple call to home. 

This call could (and should) happen, via VRS (Video Relay Service), if laws on the books were followed. Jails and Departments of Correction violate federal law everyday when they refuse to utilize VRS, a free service that can be installed for free. 

Emmanuel Steward signs to an interpreter on a video relay screen, a special videophone that relays what he says in sign language to his family members back home. Steward is imprisoned on Louisiana, one of the few states in the nation that provides this communication service to deaf prisoners. (Photo: Annie Flanagan)

Please read a thorough discussion of this, and other related issues, by visiting Mike Ludwig’s article here. 

Bullies Dump Nebraska Deaf Student’s Backpack in Toilet

Story courtesy of Tanveer Mann

Deaf student takes picture of his bag and belongings shoved down toilet by bullies. Deaf student takes picture of his bag and belongings bullies shoved down toilet. 
Alexis Hernandez, who is deaf, was left devastated after bullies dumped his backpack down the toilet with work he spent hours doing inside. (Picture: KMTV)

He’s been deaf since he was one and has been through years of bullying and jokes because of his disability.  

But what happened last week was too much for Alexis Hernandez to handle.

The teen, who is a student at Burke High school in Nebraska, was on his lunch break when he noticed his book bag, which had the battery for his cochlear implant hearing aid in it, was missing. He quickly informed school teachers, who reviewed security footage but were unable to identify the two male students who took it.

Bullies dump deaf student’s backpack down toilet, with hearing aid, bank card & coursework inside

He eventually found his belongings dumped in a school toilet (Picture: KMTV). Staff even searched the school grounds but had no luck.

It was only when Alexis went to the toilet, did he find all his homework, school supplies, tablet computer, hearing aid and debit card dumped in the toilet.

Alexis took a photo of the damage and shared it on Snapchat.

He said: ‘Those students think it’s OK to bully a deaf student, but it’s not. It’s not OK to bully someone who is disabled, deaf or hard of hearing. Or anyone for that matter.’

Bullies dump deaf student’s backpack down toilet, with hearing aid, bank card & coursework inside

The teen is a student at Burke High school in Nebraska. 

He said: ‘I was very upset because I know I work really hard on my project and homework because I just want to make my mom to be happy and know that I did a good job. 

The boys who stole the backpack have now been identified by the school, and one of them has been suspended while the other is still under investigation by school officials. They claim they didn’t know he was deaf.

Alexis said: ‘I just want to talk to them, I don’t want to fight them. I want to talk it out. And talk to their parents about them so they can tell them they need to teach them the right thing to do.’

Deaf Citizens and Police Interaction – 360 Offers Police Training

At 360 Translations we are deeply troubled by the Death of Daniel Harris, killed by a North Carolina police officer. The shooting may have been prevented had the officer’s department provided much needed, basic training in protocol for interacting with deaf citizens. 

We are not passing judgment on innocence or guilt. Working in law enforcement is an incredibly difficult job. There are varying reports of what happened:

Daniel Harris – Road Rage?
In Loving Memory of Daniel Harris
Police Perspective on Shooting
Deaf Perspective on the Death of Daniel Harris
We are committed to providing our local law enforcement with sensitivity training to reduce/eliminate such incidents. 

Please contact Kimmi Klaus, our Client Relations Specialist, about arranging training for your police department. Training is also available for business-to-business and all public venues. 

Kimmi Klaus, Client Relations Specialist


URGENT BULLETIN – Valley View to Close – we need your help!

Valley View, managed by Elwyn, in Media, Pennsylvania, is slated to close as it’s license will expire on March 31, 2012. This facility, in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, provides much needed care for over 40 Deaf and Deaf-Blind residents who live there.

The Commonwealth plans to relocate these residents to numerous facilities that have empty beds, with no consideration at all that they are cohesive unit, held together by commonality of language (ASL) and communications. Separating these residents would be akin to abuse/elder abuse.

You can step in and make your voice heard. We encourage you to take a couple of routes, encouraging the powers that be, to place a moratorium on this closure until a humane solution is worked out.

Please call these offices to make your voice heard:

  1. Governor of Pa at 215-560-2640
  2. PA Dept of Aging 717-783-1556
  3. PA Dept of Public Welfare 800-692-7462
  4. COSA – County of Delaware, Offices of Services for the Aging 610-490-133

You should also contact the State Representatives to Harrisburg for Media (click on their names below for contact information):

  1. House District 168, contact Thomas H. Killion (R), State Representative
  2. Senate District 9, contact Dominic Pileggi (R), State Senator

Bulletin: Rethinking VRI (Video Remote Interpreting) and the Reason 360 Translations Does Not Support It

Last year, 360 Translations contemplated implementation of Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) as a solution for our valued clients. We even considered this a viable alternative for medical institutions as they grappled to meet the needs of their deaf patients. Before the launch of VRI, I took a closer look at the capabilities of this technology, as well as the Deaf Community’s and other stakeholder’s position on this technology. My question: “Would VRI be an equal/acceptable substitute to on-site interpretation?” I read articles and position papers by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) and the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), both of which highlight a lengthy list of limitations depending upon setting and end users abilities and skills.

On a related note, I worked for a number of years as a video interpreter for a video relay service (VRS) provider. While VRI and VRS have some differences in platforms, the technology is basically the same, and what the deaf person, interpreter, and hearing user see, hear and experience are nearly identical via VRI and VRS. In fact, in most instances, VRS is superior due to the use of “fat” transmission lines used by all VRS providers, while VRI providers may be transmitting via a home-based webcam on a simple internet connection (cable, fiber, etc.) to higher speed connections; one cannot be sure unless the VRI provider truly spells out their transmission speed and can guarantee that speed. Here again, while the provider may be transmitting at super-fast speeds, the end user is at the mercy of their own connection, which is often subjected to retarding factors such as firewalls and multiple limitations in the use of WiFi, etc.

Anyway, after much research, and viewing recent case law that the use of VRI has promulgated via settlements with medical institutions (see United States of America v. Dimensions Health Corporation, Laurel, Maryland), which are numerous, I became convinced that VRI is NOT a viable option or even substitution for on-site interpreting. NAD even points out that if VRI is used, it should only used until an on-site interpreter can dispatched to the hospital. And hospitals are only one consideration, as this concern extends to legal settings (courtroom, police station, etc.). Drawing on my VRS experience as a video interpreting, I knew full well the limitations of this technology. Language nuances are greatly reduced via VRS/VRI, and message equivalence suffers. There is no interpreter on-site here, which immediately sacrifices multidimensional, in-touch language interface, critical to accurate translation of the spoken word to ASL, and vice versa. I knew in good conscience that I could not provide this inferior product to our clients. It would be a disservice to them and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing clients they serve, and whose interests they should be protecting.

It doesn’t stop with VRI. Ubiduo, a device marketed by sComm, assumes written language fluency on the part of the both parties. This is critical, as a deaf person’s first language is often ASL, and written language fluency can be limited. It also assumes that both persons using the device have no time constraints, as speed of communication is dependent upon the speed of typing. Perhaps not a good choice in most situations, but it has its place, though limited. On a recent visit to RIT/NTID (Rochester Institute of Technology/National Technical Institute for the Deaf) we saw the Ubiduo used all over campus as a means for college students to communicate with their hearing counterparts. It serves a need here for short, quick communication. Not so in interpreting situations, despite the fact that we are seeing these being used in Federal agencies, and elsewhere, as a replacement for on-site interpreting services. This is a sad commentary on the value we place on communication between deaf and hearing people.

Technology is ever-advancing, and perhaps one day there will be auxiliary means for interpreting that will successfully supplement the use of on-site interpretation. VRI and Ubiduo, while interesting and unique, are not a substitution.


Daniel B. Swartz, PhD, CI, CT, SC:L
Executive Director
360 Translations

Congratulations to Maria Armstrong, 360 Translations’ Interpreter of the Month for June 2013

Maria-Armstrong-Headshot-1-214x300Every month the staff of 360 Translations votes for the outstanding interpreter of the month.

It is with pleasure that we announce that Maria Armstrong has been named Interpreter of the Month for June, 2013.  Linda has been with 360 Translations for less than a  year, and she is an extremely dependable and highly professional interpreter.

Congratulations Maria, and keep up the great work.

360 Translations is Federally Certified Veteran-Owned Business.

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