According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, those in state or federal prison are three times as likely to report having a disability than a non-incarcerated population and are more likely to be wrongfully convicted.
Those who are deaf and disabled are discriminated against every step of the way in our legal system. Deaf prisoners frequently go without American Sign Language interpreters through court proceedings and during incarceration. They are stripped of any ability to communicate with the outside world, thanks to the lack of video phone technology in jails and prisons. Those with physical disabilities often go without adequate healthcare, necessary medical devices, or accessibility.
“Policing systems target disabled people by criminalizing survival, difference and disability."
– TL Lewis, HEARD
Ableism in the Justice System
One thing we know about resisting against a criminal legal system that wrongfully incarcerates people, is that we cannot fight this fight alone. And we must be open to empowering and following those who are the most affected. This year we started working in coalition with HEARD (Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of Deaf Communities), to expand our own accessibility, and to fill in the gaps of our own knowledge.
If you’ve joined any of our virtual events this year, you’ve probably noticed that those events are now translated live by an American Sign Language interpreter so that those who are deaf can experience our events. This is a small adjustment to make. But access to language is an enormous problem in the criminal legal system, and it is just one issue HEARD works to solve.
“The goal is to work ourselves out of a job, and to do that we need to build power and access to justice,” said MIP executive director Tricia Rojo Bushnell. “Here’s an entire community of people who are more likely to be targeted and abused, and they aren’t even provided the language to access their own justice.”
American Sign Language, for example, doesn’t have signs for words like “prosecutor” or “exoneree.” HEARD works directly with deaf clients to expand their access, and they also have developed a video series, where they sign for phrases like “mass incarceration.”
But the issue runs even deeper — and it’s a reality that we hope to expand awareness of within the legal field.
“Various forms of privilege including classism, linguicism, audism, and ableism mean that expectations of people understanding the legal system are unrealistic for most people, not just disabled people,” according to HEARD co-founder TL Lewis and volunteer advocate Kaj Kraus. “Language and communication are fluid, so what may work for one person may not work for others. This is another thing we hope that the legal profession will come to understand.”
We know these gaping holes in the system are not overnight fixes. We know resistance against a system this layered, this deeply discriminatory against those who are disabled or deaf, is a long fight. But we’re committed to increasing access to our services and content to all, including those who are deaf and disabled, and expanding education efforts within the legal field.
Want to know more?
Follow HEARD on social media:
Watch our "Fireside Chat" with TL Lewis of HEARD
Wrongful incarceration can happen to anyone, yes — but we operate within a system that targets certain communities. As our work continues to evolve, it’s critical we listen to those communities, and work in coalition to support them. And we thank HEARD for leading the way for us.
What Can You Do to Help?
Our legal system operates by only thinking of the able-bodied, the literate, and those who can hear and see. It isolates, discriminates against, and punishes those who aren’t.
Contact your state and local legislators to push for video phones in jails and prisons. Ask for more funding to go towards translation services, during court proceedings and within jails and prisons. Voice your support for adequate health care (both physical and mental) and equal accessibility for the incarcerated.