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.

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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.”