News & CultureThe Deaf Are the Unheard Victims of Police Brutality, Until Now
The tragic killing of Daniel Harris, an unarmed deaf man in Charlotte, signals a renewed national awareness of the deaf community’s fears.
On Thursday, August 18, a 29-year-old deaf man in Charlotte, North Carolina, was shot and killed by a state trooper. This man, Daniel Harris, reportedly was caught speeding but did not hear the sirens of the police car requesting he pull over. After Harris parked and got out of his car, the officer shot him—just a few feet from his home. Now, his death has become front-page news around the world, which has trained its eye on the United States following numerous highly publicized deaths of civilians at the hands of law enforcement officers. But African-Americans aren’t the only marginalized group who have had fatal run-ins with members of the police. Many deaf and hard-of-hearing people have also had deadly encounters with cops, many of which were the result of miscommunication or inability to understand each other.
Note: I prefer the use of capital-D Deaf, which indicates belonging to a politically aware, socially active community; for general purposes this article uses lowercase-d deaf, which simply means a person has severe hearing loss.
When I first read about what happened to Harris, it hit me on a personal level. Like Daniel Harris, American Sign Language is my native language. I’m a CODA, Child of Deaf Adults, and while I am able to hear I consider the Deaf community my family and my home. Our community is small, and it is tight-knit. Within a few hours of learning about Harris’s death, I already discovered that my parents had some friends who knew him and his family.
Simply existing as a deaf person in America can be a nerve-wracking experience.
Even as a child, I was constantly aware of the dangers our community faced. It seems like everyone has a story about the time their signs were mistaken for aggression against a child or an unwanted advance on a woman. There are not-infrequent killings of deaf people who are mistakenly believed to be throwing gang signs. In 2010, Seattle police shot and killed John T. Williams, a deaf Native American man who could “did not obey” their command to drop what he was holding and put his hands up—because he couldn’t hear them, of course. The officer who killed Williams resigned from the force before he could be fired, but he did not face any criminal charges. Last year, a deaf man named Edward P. Miller was shot by a Florida sheriff’s deputy after “shouting too loudly” during an argument with an employee of a towing company; many deaf people are unable to regulate their voices.
Simply existing as a deaf person in America can be a nerve-wracking experience. Even the way that the media has covered Harris’s death shows how much our culture as a whole still doesn’t understand about deaf people. New York Daily News columnist Shaun King, who was one of the first mainstream reporters to pick up Harris’s story, initially called Harris’s family members “hearing impaired.” The Daily Mail, who also used the term hearing impaired, ran the story on its homepage (the internet equivalent of putting up a billboard) but referred to Harris as “deaf and mute.” Both of those terms are considered offensive by the deaf community. (King changed “hearing impaired” to “deaf” the day after his column first ran; “mute” has been removed from the original headline but still appears in the story’s URL.) Although many people think “hearing impaired” sounds more tactful or polite, most people simply use the descriptors “deaf” or “hard of hearing” to describe themselves. “Deaf and mute,” which has echoes of the thankfully-gone “deaf and dumb,” inaccurately conflates not being able to talk with not being able to hear. It may not seem like a huge difference, but the terminology is important. Another critical distinction that not everyone may know: sign languages vary from country to country (for example, American Sign Language and British Sign Language are hugely different and use different alphabets), and while it may seem faster to say that Daniel Harris was “using sign language,” it’s more accurate to say that he was communicating—or attempting to—in ASL.
The very same people who don’t know that Braille and ASL are wildly different languages may be the ones pulling deaf people over for speeding.
Harris’s death, as well as those of the deaf individuals before him, make it abundantly clear that things need to change. It isn’t just about use of the right adjectives—although those are certainly welcome. Many people around the world are uneducated to the point of ignorance about the deaf community, but not all of them have guns and the authority to use them. Law enforcement officials need more training about how to interact with deaf individuals, but they aren’t the only ones. It may seem silly or harmless when yet another person asks me if I know Braille, but these basic misunderstandings hint at much more significant issues beneath. The very same people who don’t know that Braille and ASL are wildly different languages may be the ones pulling deaf people over for speeding.
Ultimately, the real issue is people failing to see deaf people as people and instead seeing them as threats or problems. According to witnesses, Harris was already out of his car and stopped when he was shot. If speeding was the issue, why did he become a threat the minute he stopped his car? Why is an unarmed deaf man so scary to a person with a gun? On a fundraising page set up after his death, Harris’s family wrote, “His tragic death could have been prevented. Police brutality ends NOW.” Adding more sadness to the situation is the news that Harris had a four-year-old son.
While Harris’s death may have become front page news, police violence against deaf people caused by language-related misunderstandings is such a familiar topic in our community that no less than Marlee Matlin, the Oscar-winning deaf actress, made a video about the importance of educating law enforcement about deaf people. But when these killings have been going on for years, why is it Daniel Harris whose story has become a national and international headline? The Black Lives Matter movement has done stellar work pushing stories of black individuals killed by police officers into the national spotlight, to the point where mothers of several of these men and women appeared onstage at the Democratic National Convention and got a standing ovation. The conversation about how and when police officers use weapons, and on whom, is officially a mainstream topic. But BLM’s work isn’t done, and neither is the work of deaf activists who have been speaking out about Harris’s death. Bringing stories of injustice against marginalized people into the light is important, but then what? Once we’ve started these national conversations, what should the result be? It’s clear that our current system of policing is deeply flawed.
John T. Williams and Edward P. Miller’s deaths got little coverage outside of the areas that they lived in. But Harris’s story has spread around the world, reaching people who may never have met a deaf individual in their entire lives. It isn’t enough to simply know the word “audism.” It isn’t enough to build a “deaf driver database” like the one championed by Harris’s family, to help cops identify deaf drivers by their license plate numbers. It isn’t enough to cry at a news story on TV and not take action.
A few weeks ago, a viral photo popped up in my Facebook feed. A deaf man was proudly showing off an “I'm Deaf, I'm Not Carrying a Weapon, Please Don't Shoot” sticker someone had made for him to put on the back of his truck in case he got pulled over. Many hearing friends shared the photo, commenting on what a good idea the sticker was and how great it would be to see such stickers become more commonly recognized and used to prevent violent acts like the one that would, weeks later, result in Daniel Harris’s senseless and unnecessary death. But all I could do was find myself wishing that such stickers never needed to exist in the first place.