Interacting with a masked police officer if you’re deaf is a dilemma that Katherine Zee (a pseudonym to protect her privacy) experienced back in mid-May when she was pulled over. The officer approached the Northern California resident and started talking. She explained that she was deaf and reads lips and couldn’t understand him with his mask on. She asked if he could step back 6-10 feet away and safely take off his mask, since she can lipread well up to 10 feet or so. Zee also suggested he grab a paper and pen to write. He refused and continued talking to her through his mask. Zee kept repeating that she still couldn’t understand him and says it was pretty clear he could understand her.
Then the officer saw Zee’s eight-year-old hearing daughter in the back seat and asked her to interpret for him.
“Shy by nature and having never spoken with a cop before, she got scared and burst into tears,” Zee says. “She didn’t know what she was supposed to do. She was afraid of ‘messing up’ and getting into trouble. I got mad at the cop and said to leave my daughter out of it, that she was my child, not my interpreter. He ignored me and kept talking to her. She was so scared and kept crying. I kept asking him to step away and take off his mask or get paper/pen, but he refused.”
“I kept asking him to step away and take off his mask or get paper/pen, but he refused.”
Since it was clear the officer wouldn’t accommodate Zee, despite the ADA requiring this, she tried calling family members on FaceTime. After her husband and sister didn’t answer, she reached her mom. After being given a brief update on what occurred, her mom agreed to be the interpreter. She started mouthing to Zee via FaceTime what the cop was saying. The officer tried to reach Zee’s phone to talk to her mom directly, but Zee stopped him.
“I told him, ‘You can’t touch my things!!’” Zee recounts. “’I don’t know when you last washed your hands, and you’re not wearing gloves!’ It was ridiculous that he refused to take off his mask but wanted to reach for my phone inside the car.”
Zee now has paper/pen inside her car, which she didn’t have before. She also set up Otter (a speech-to-text app that transcribes what people say) on her phone. [Disclaimer, in some states, you may need to inform the officer that you’re using this because of local wiretap laws.]
Read more: Speech-to-text apps for the deaf community
She wrote a complaint to the police department but has yet to hear back. The plan is to pursue this, asking for the police department to undergo sensitivity training and learn not to use children as interpreters. She points out that when parents are immigrants who don’t speak English and their children can, the same thing can happen.
Zee also says that the experience has made her daughter “terrified of police officers.”
California just issued a mandate that all residents must wear masks in public places. Exempt from wearing a face covering are “persons who are hearing impaired or communicating with a person who is hearing impaired, where the ability to see the mouth is essential for communication.”
Zee’s county already had this in place before it was mandated by the state. She says she told the officer about it and was going to pull it up on her phone to show him, but he said he didn’t want to see it. Her mom tried to intervene, telling him what Zee was going to show him. He brushed it off.
Zee says she has since discovered the officer was actually a sheriff. Needless to say, she now has a laminated copy of the exemptions to the state mandate – both in her purse and car.
Black people’s interactions with police officers have dominated the news lately. Being black and deaf can come with its own challenges.
Vyron Kinson, a National Black Deaf Advocates’ (NBDA) Southern Regional Representative, says he is lucky. He has yet to encounter a masked police officer and doesn’t know anyone who has. However, when asked if he was worried about being pulled over prior to COVID-19, he said “yes.”
“I try not to worry so much because this has been happening over decades,” he says. “I was pulled over by a police officer at least five times. Most of the time they were calm. There was one incident when the police was very impatient, but he dismissed me less than a minute after I asked him to write it down, over 10 years ago.”
Though we’re in a pandemic, Kinson says he isn’t worried. But other people are.
On Instagram, @thejoanjoel posted a picture of a black woman wearing a sign on her back that says, “I’m scared to have my back to a cop because I am black and deaf.”
Bill Johnson, Executive Director of the National Association of Police Organizations, says he doesn’t know of any special way to let an officer know about one’s deafness prior to being pulled over, other than perhaps a special decal on the car or license plate. He isn’t sure if all people with hearing loss would feel comfortable with this.
Once the person is pulled over, Johnson says it might be helpful to have a small card to hand to the officer along with your license and registration.
“The card might contain information that the driver is hearing impaired, and if appropriate, to consider removing any mask if that is what the driver needs in order to help understand what the driver is saying,” says Johnson. “I think just about every officer would be grateful for the information and willing to be as flexible as possible under the circumstances in an effort to communicate accurately.”
Vermont actually has this as an official “visor card” for deaf residents. People with hearing loss are now able to present a visor card to police officers. The cards were created in partnership with the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), the Department of Disabilities, Aging & Independent Living, and Vermont State Police. The cards are obtained through the DMV and the state police gives one to every state trooper.
As the Saint Albans Messenger article reports, “The 4×9 inch cards state clearly at the top, ‘I am deaf or hard of hearing. This card is to help drivers with hearing loss communicate with police officers.’ There are tips for how officers should communicate with the cardholder, followed by options that cardholders can point to indicating how best to communicate with them (writing, texting, lipreading, etc.). On the back, there are graphics with one-word labels that officers can point to under ‘I need to see your (license, registration, insurance, other)’ and ‘Violations.’ The last section is ‘Help,’ and lists options for cardholders to show the officer what they need (medical, lost, tow, etc.).”
Johnson suggests that recognized representatives of hearing loss organizations reach out to their local agencies. In the very least, contacting your local police department and providing them with this article and/or the Vermont visor card is a good first step toward a mutually beneficial partnership.
“I think local agencies would welcome the opportunity to work together to avoid misunderstandings and keep everyone safe,” says Johnson.