Officials pass out free cue cards to help bridge gap between police, deaf

Officers usually do not know American Sign Language

By: - September 19, 2023 5:28 am

Two people communicate using sign language on a video call. State officials are distributing cue cards to help deaf residents and police communicate. (Photo provided by Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services)

Advocates for the deaf and hard of hearing are working to prevent tragic police encounters by offering free cue cards to help bridge the communication gap.

In observance of International Deaf Awareness Week, which runs through Sunday, drivers who are deaf and hard of hearing can receive free visual aids through the employment program Services to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

For more information on obtaining a cue card,  email [email protected] or use a video phone to call 405-543-2646.

The cards help prevent miscommunication during traffic stops, according to a statement from the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services.

Jody Harlan, spokesperson for the agency, said police departments have requested cards.

An estimated 194,000 Oklahomans — or 5% — are hard of hearing, the agency said.

Visual cue cards help the deaf and hard of hearing communicate with law enforcement during traffic stops. (Illustration provided by the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services)

Officers usually do not know American Sign Language (ASL), while deaf residents cannot understand officers, said David Hankinson, Services to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing program manager, who is deaf.

“We want deaf or hard of hearing drivers to keep police communication cards tucked into their car visors to quickly identify themselves,” Hankinson said in a statement. “Our cards save lives and help deaf drivers and police officers communicate important information most commonly needed in traffic stops.”

Hankinson also said some encounters between deaf individuals and the police “have ended in tragedy. Others have ended in lawsuits levied against the law enforcement agencies. In both cases, people suffered, but the communication card helps avoid those problems.”

Two Oklahoma City police officers were cleared of criminal wrongdoing after they killed a man in 2017 who was deaf and diagnosed with developmental disabilities.

Police responded to a hit and run accident and encountered Magdiel Sanchez, who walked toward them with a metal pipe and did not respond to police commands. Witnesses later said Sanchez kept the pipe on hand to protect against stray dogs in the neighborhood.

Gary Knight, Oklahoma City Police Department spokesperson, said their department began requiring a class on interactions with the Deaf community several years ago.

Knight also said all new police recruits are trained in the Americans with Disabilities Act and with the Tulsa Speech and Hearing Association. The department also has four ASL interpreters on staff.

Knight could not say whether the department’s training was in response to the 2017 shooting.

“Whether it’s sign language, or someone who speaks a foreign language, we always try to find a way to effectively communicate with that individual,” Knight said in an email.

In Sulphur, where a school for the Deaf is located, police Sgt. Kevin Calabrese said his department uses an ASL interpreter who is typically available to respond to calls. He said cue cards are a place to start the conversation.

“I’ve used it before if it’s a simple, ‘Hey, you were speeding’ type of thing,’ but if we’re going to ask more questions or they’re unsure if it was 30, 40 miles an hour that’s not on the card,” he said. “I usually use the phone or a notepad for that.”

Interpreters are called if the person requests one, often when that person is a crime victim, Calabrese said.


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Mindy Ragan Wood
Mindy Ragan Wood

Mindy covers the legislature for Oklahoma Voice. Her areas of focus include infrastructure, municipal government policies, and human services with an emphasis on the needs of intellectually vulnerable and physically challenged adults.