U.S. Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
Disability Rights Section

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Communicating with People Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing: ADA Guide for Law Enforcement Officers

A driver who is deaf writes on a pad of paper to communicate with an officer.

As a law enforcement officer, you can expect to come into contact with people who are deaf or hard of hearing. It is estimated that up to nine percent of the population has some degree of  hearing loss, and this percentage will increase as the population ages.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), people who are deaf or hard of hearing are  entitled to the same services law enforcement provides to anyone else. They may not be  excluded or segregated from services, be denied services, or otherwise be treated differently than other people. Law enforcement agencies must make efforts to ensure that their personnel communicate effectively with people whose disability affects hearing. This applies to both sworn and civilian personnel.

Your agency has adopted a specific policy regarding communicating with people who are deaf or hard of hearing. It is important to become familiar with this policy.

Requirements for Effective Communication

The ADA requires that . . .

Your agency’s policy explains how to obtain interpreters or other communication aids and services when needed.

Communicating with People Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

Officers may find a variety of communication aids and services useful in different situations.

The type of situation, as well as the individual’s abilities, will determine which aid or service is needed to communicate effectively.

Practical Suggestions for Communicating Effectively

What Situations Require an Interpreter?

Generally, interpreter services are not required for simple transactions – such as checking a license or giving directions to a location – or for urgent situations – such as responding to a violent crime in progress.

Example: An officer clocks a car on the highway going 15 miles per hour above the speed limit.  The driver, who is deaf, is pulled over and is issued a noncriminal citation. The individual is able to understand the reason for the citation because the officer points out relevant information printed on the citation or written by the officer.

Example: An officer responds to an aggravated battery call and upon arriving at the scene observes a bleeding victim and an individual holding a weapon. Eyewitnesses observed the individual strike the victim. The individual with the weapon is deaf. Because the officer has probable cause to make a felony arrest without an interrogation, an interpreter is not necessary to carry out the arrest.

However, an interpreter may be needed in lengthy or complex transactions – such as interviewing a victim, witness, suspect, or arrestee – if the person being interviewed normally relies on sign language or speech reading to understand what others are saying.

Example: An officer responds to the scene of a domestic disturbance. The husband says the wife has been beating their children and he has been trying to restrain her. The wife is deaf. The officer begins questioning her by writing notes, but her response indicates a lack of comprehension. She requests a sign language interpreter. In this situation an interpreter should be called. If the woman’s behavior is threatening, the officer can make an arrest and call for an interpreter to be available later at the booking station.

It is inappropriate to ask a family member or companion to interpret in a situation like this  because emotional ties may interfere with the ability to interpret impartially.

Example: An officer responds to the scene of a car accident where a man has been seriously injured. The man is conscious, but is unable to comprehend the officer’s questions because he is deaf. A family member who is present begins interpreting what the officer is saying.

A family member or companion may be used to interpret in a case like this, since it is an emergency involving an imminent threat to the safety or welfare of an individual and no interpreter is available. However, in general, do not expect or demand that a deaf person provide his or her own interpreter. As a rule, when interpreter service is needed, it must be provided by the agency.

List your agency’s contact information for obtaining an interpreter, an assistive listening device, or other communication aid or service here.

For further information on the Americans with Disabilities Act contact:

ADA Website

www.ada.gov

ADA Information Line

800-514-0301 (voice)

800-514-0383 (TTY)

This pamphlet was developed by the U.S. Department of Justice for law enforcement personnel.

Reproduction is encouraged.

Issued January 2006, last updated February 25, 2020

The Americans with Disabilities Act authorizes the Department of Justice (the Department) to provide technical assistance to individuals and entities that have rights or responsibilities under the Act. This document provides informal guidance to assist you in understanding the ADA and the Department's regulations.

This guidance document is not intended to be a final agency action, has no legally binding effect, and may be rescinded or modified in the Department's complete discretion, in accordance with applicable laws. The Department's guidance documents, including this guidance, do not establish legally enforceable responsibilities beyond what is required by the terms of the applicable statutes, regulations, or binding judicial precedent.