The Hazards of Driving While Deaf

The death last week of 29 year-old-Daniel Harris, who was Deaf,  is a reminder for all of us who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing that we need to be extra cautious when pulled over by a police officer. Here’s a link to the New York Times article, which also includes heart-breaking photos of this very young man.image3-1

The risk is even greater if you’re black, as the Pearl Pearson case in 2014 showed. Pearl Pearson—a grandfather (with both a son and son-in-law in law enforcement), who was Deaf and black—was pulled over by a highway patrolman. When he failed to respond properly, the patrolman handcuffed him and put him in the police car. The incident was videotaped, and he was treated roughly enough to require medical attention

What should you do if you’re pulled over? This can be difficult and even dangerous for someone with hearing loss. Even if you tell the cop you have hearing loss he’s still going to expect you to answer his questions. Remember, you don’t <I>look<I> deaf. “Lady, do you know how fast you were going?” The correct answer is not to reach over to the glove compartment for your registration.

This situation is even more difficult at night, when the headlights from the police car behind you may blind you. What if the officer doesn’t even get out of the car but blares through his loudspeaker “Get out of the car!” Or was that “Don’t get out of the car!” That kind of misunderstanding can get you killed, or at least roughed up. This is even more of a possibility if you also happen to be young, male, or black. Add hearing loss and the situation is even more likely to escalate. (Harris was white.)

The Pearl Pearson case got a great deal of attention among the Deaf and HOH community, and a fund-raiser was held to help with medical and legal expenses. The local law enforcement community also paid attention. Pearson had a note on his car visor saying he was Deaf, but unfortunately he didn’t get a chance to show it before he was handcuffed and bundled into the police car. That visor message is something that all of us with hearing loss should have. You can download a copy and print it out from Google images.

Neil Baumann offers a visor card you can order for $4.95 that is laminated. His 2005 column on visor cards relates some alarming instances of people with hearing loss being pulled over and having their hearing loss misunderstood. Get yourself a visor card.

Then what? If you’re pulled over, the first thing you should do is unclip the visor message and place it on your steering wheel. Tell the officer that you are Deaf or hard of hearing and point to the visor message. Watch the officer closely as he gives you instructions. If you don’t understand the officer’s words, repeat “I am deaf (or hard of hearing). I did not understand what you just said because I couldn’t hear you. Would you please write down what you just said?’

Make sure the visor message is on the visor, not somewhere in your purse or the glove compartment where you’re going to have to shuffle around looking for it. The ACLU and the actress Marlee Matlin teamed up to produce a video on how to handle a traffic stop if you are deaf or hard of hearing. It has useful advice for both those with hearing loss (and those who hear perfectly). Matlin uses ASL in the video, but it is also captioned and there is a voice-over for the hearing.

As the Harris case shows, law enforcement didn’t learn much from the Pearl Pearson incident. Those of us with hearing loss need to be very very cautious when you’re pulled over. The visor card is a good place to start.

\Living Better jpegshoutingwonthelp

Katherine Bouton is the author of “Living Better With Hearing Loss: A Guide to Health, Happiness, Love, Sex, Work, Friends … and Hearing Aids,” and a memoir, “Shouting Won’t Help: Why I — and 50 Million Other Americans — Can’t Hear You”. Both available on Amazon.com.

*This essay is adapted from “Living Better With Hearing Loss: A Guide to Health, Happiness, Love, Sex, Work, Friends … and Hearing Aids.”

31 thoughts on “The Hazards of Driving While Deaf

  1. Is there a reason you capitalized Deaf? Unless you are only addressing Deaf Culture, I wish you wouldn’t. I am deaf (lowercase) and don’t identify with Deaf (uppercase) who eschew hearing technology like cochlear implants. But as you well know even those of us who are deaf but wear CIs struggle to hear and driving can be perilous for us too.

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    • Those who are (d)eaf do not live in and interact with the Deaf community. Those who are (D)eaf live in and interact with the Deaf community, use devices to assist them in living, use sign language to communicate, and live in a Deaf world.

      People with Cochlear Implants generally are (deaf), and have an artificial hearing device to allow them to exist fully in a hearing world. That is the difference between deaf and Deaf.

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      • Thanks for this distinction. Many Deaf, ASL speaking people, do now also have cochlear implants or hearing aids. Gallaudet has students with these devices, although ASL is the language used on campus.

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  2. Thanks for the wonderful tip.I came up with an easy DIY solution: I used two Google Images: one says: “Driver is Deaf or Hard of Hearing. Failure to cooperate with verbal commands means I am not hearing you. Driver has special communications needs. See back of card for best ways to communicate with the driver.” The second has two main parts, “I communicate using this methods” (a list follows). And “Here’s how you can help me understand you” (a list follows). I blew up the first image to 150% and printed it in color on an 8’1/2″ sheet of paper. I did the same with the second image and printed it on the other side of the same page. I then enclosed the printed sheet in a plastic page protector and attached it to my visor with two rubber bands. I’ll carry extra rubber bands in my drink holder. When the visor is flipped up, the page doesn’t show. When it’s down, the page is visible. It’s easy to remove by sliding it out from the rubber bands.

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  3. I would never paste or post or otherwise attach notice of my hearing loss on my vehicle. This could leave me open to any crook, thug, robber or rapist who happened to be passing by looking for an opportunity to commit mayhem. Visors and business cards are fine, but let’s not ask for trouble.

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  4. I understood Daniel Harris got out of his car then realized the police surrounded him. He couldn’t have gone back to his car to reach for the sign on his visor. What could he have done?

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    • You should never get out of the car when you’re stopped by a police officer, whether or not you have hearing loss. You must wait for the officer to approach your car, then you open the window. I’m not saying this was Harris’s fault, because I’m sure he panicked, but the safest thing to do is stay behind the wheel, put your visor card where it can be seen, and ask the officer to write what he wants you to do.

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      • That’s true, but from what I read, he got out of the car because he didn’t know he was surrounded by police. He was just going into his house.

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  5. To: Katherine Bouton:

    Regarding the Hazards of Driving While Deaf, I see no harm in a person with hearing loss wearing a round 3” button imprinted as follows with black text on yellow background:

    I DON’T HEAR WELL

    PLEASE SPEAK SLOWLY

    Sun City Center Chapter HLAA

    Richard Herring

    President HLAA-SCC Chapter

    Email: rhermann1938@gmail.com

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  6. Keep your hands visible at all times . If you have a visor , do not reach for it … The officer does not know why your hands are moving up . When approached for license point to visor and ask if you can show it . Also have with your license a smaller card that says the same thing . Have pencil and paper handy if unable to speak … Remember the officer has no idea … Hearing loss/ deafness is invisible . Wear a button that says you are _____. Read lips etc. when driving . Pin it to your seat belt .
    Think ahead and always be aware of your surroundings .

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  7. I don’t know why Daniel should see BLUE flash he should pull over but he keeeeeeeeep onnnnnnnn drove for 6 miles police did bump him but he refused pull over WHY ??????? He should stay car instead of got out from car police thought he might have gun his behind or what . That reallly sad he lose his life … .. Prayer his family. Police need take class take education learn ASL and warning deaf driver in their computer thanks

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    • It’s especially important for people who are deaf and hard of hearing to know how to behave when stopped or followed by a cop. He may have been driving inattentively and didn’t see the blue lights — but deaf and HOH drivers need to be visually aware of everything around them

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