Despite the fact that there are more than 48 million people in the United States with hearing loss and only about 1 million people in the US who are deaf—a difference of 480 percent (See “Hearing Loss Prevalence in the United States” by Dr. Frank Lin of John Hopkins in “Archives of Internal Medicine,”11/14/2011, pgs. 1851-1852 and see “The Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, January 2006, pgs. 112-119)—the courts and bar associations in New York continue, with few exceptions, to turn a deaf ear when it comes to the specific needs of people in the hearing loss community.

Witness the 9/26/2017 press release and the 9/27/2017 article published on page one of the NY Law Journal announcing that Court of Appeals Chief Justice Janet DiFiore had appointed a 17-member Advisory Committee to “Improve Court Access for the Disabled.”  The press release and article both state that when it comes to the deaf and hard of hearing, the panel will assess “the availability of sign language.”

Likewise the October 2016 Small Claims Court Guide published by the New York City Bar states that “If a party … is hearing impaired, he or she is entitled to an interpreter.”

The problem is that more than 95% of individuals with hearing loss cannot communicate via sign language; so to offer a sign language interpreter to a hearing loss person is the same as offering a Spanish-speaking interpreter to someone who only speaks Russian.  It’s useless. (See “How Many People Use ASL,” Gallaudet Research Institute, Ross E. Mitchell, 4/7/2004)

Until the NY courts and bar associations recognize the distinct difference between people who are deaf and those many more with hearing loss—and offer readily available assistive listening systems and communication technologies to match their degree and type of hearing loss—the courts will continue to deny access to justice to this very large and growing segment of the population simply because they can’t understand what is being said.

Howard S. Davis
Oceanside, New York
Retired attorney with bilateral hearing loss