Communicating with People who are Deaf/Hard of Hearing

This section was developed by the U.S. Department of Justice for law enforcement personnel but can be applied to other first responder disciplines.

A driver who is deaf writes on a pad of paper to communicate with an officer. As a law enforcement officer, you can expect to come into contact with people who are deaf or hard of hearing. It is estimated that up to nine percent of the population has some degree of hearing loss, and this percentage will increase as the population ages.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), people who are deaf or hard of hearing are entitled to the same services law enforcement provides to anyone else. They may not be excluded or segregated from services, be denied services, or otherwise be treated differently than other people. Law enforcement agencies must make efforts to ensure that their personnel communicate effectively with people whose disability affects hearing. This applies to both sworn and civilian personnel.

Your agency has adopted a specific policy regarding communicating with people who are deaf or hard of hearing. It is important to become familiar with this policy.

Requirements for Effective Communication

The ADA requires that . . .

  • Law enforcement agencies must provide the communication aids and services needed to communicate effectively with people who are deaf or hard of hearing, except when a particular aid or service would result in an undue burden or a fundamental change in the nature of the law enforcement services being provided.
  • Agencies must give primary consideration to providing the aid or service requested by the person with the hearing disability.
  • Agencies cannot charge the person for the communication aids or services provided.
  • Agencies do not have to provide personally prescribed devices such as hearing aids.
  • When interpreters are needed, agencies must provide interpreters who can interpret effectively, accurately, and impartially.
  • Only the head of the agency or his or her designee can make the determination that a particular aid or service would cause an undue burden or a fundamental change in the nature of the law enforcement services being provided.

Your agency's policy explains how to obtain interpreters or other communication aids and services when needed.

Communicating with People who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

Officers may find a variety of communication aids and services useful in different situations:

  • Speech supplemented by gestures and visual aids can be used in some cases.
  • A pad and pencil, a word processor, or a typewriter can be used to exchange written notes.
  • A teletypewriter (TTY, also known as a TDD) can be used to exchange written messages over the telephone.
  • An assistive listening system or device to amplify sound can be used when speaking with a person who is hard of hearing.
  • A sign language interpreter can be used when speaking with a person who knows sign language.
  • An oral interpreter can be used when speaking with a person who has been trained to speech read (read lips). Note: Do not assume that speech reading will be effective in most situations. On average, only about one third of spoken words can be understood by speech reading.

The type of situation, as well as the individual's abilities, will determine which aid or service is needed to communicate effectively.

Practical Suggestions for Communicating Effectively

  • Before speaking, get the person's attention with a wave of the hand or a gentle tap on the shoulder.
  • Face the person and do not turn away while speaking.
  • Try to converse in a well-lit area.
  • Do not cover your mouth or chew gum.
  • If a person is wearing a hearing aid, do not assume the individual can hear you.
  • Minimize background noise and other distractions whenever possible.
  • When you are communicating orally, speak slowly and distinctly. Use gestures and facial expressions to reinforce what you are saying.
  • Use visual aids when possible, such as pointing to printed information on a citation or other document.
  • Remember that only about one third of spoken words can be understood by speech reading.
  • When communicating by writing notes, keep in mind that some individuals who use sign language may lack good English reading and writing skills.
  • If someone with a hearing disability cannot understand you, write a note to ask him or her what communication aid or service is needed.
  • If a sign language interpreter is requested, be sure to ask which language the person uses. American Sign Language (ASL) and Signed English are the most common.
  • When you are interviewing a witness or a suspect or engaging in any complex conversation with a person whose primary language is sign language, a qualified interpreter is usually needed to ensure effective communication.
  • When using an interpreter, look at and speak directly to the deaf person, not to the interpreter.
  • Talk at your normal rate, or slightly slower if you normally speak very fast.
  • Only one person should speak at a time.
  • Use short sentences and simple words.
  • Do not use family members or children as interpreters. They may lack the vocabulary or the impartiality needed to interpret effectively.

What Situations Require an Interpreter?

Generally, interpreter services are not required for simple transactions – such as checking a license or giving directions to a location – or for urgent situations – such as responding to a violent crime in progress.

Example: An officer clocks a car on the highway going 15 miles per hour above the speed limit. The driver, who is deaf, is pulled over and is issued a noncriminal citation. The individual is able to understand the reason for the citation because the officer points out relevant information printed on the citation or written by the officer.

Example: An officer responds to an aggravated battery call and upon arriving at the scene observes a bleeding victim and an individual holding a weapon. Eyewitnesses observed the individual strike the victim. The individual with the weapon is deaf. Because the officer has probable cause to make a felony arrest without an interrogation, an interpreter is not necessary to carry out the arrest.

However, an interpreter may be needed in lengthy or complex transactions – such as interviewing a victim, witness, suspect, or arrestee – if the person is being interviewed normally relies on sign language or speech reading to understand what others are saying.

Example: An officer responds to the scene of a domestic disturbance. The husband says the wife has been beating their children and he has been trying to restrain her. The wife is deaf. The officer begins questioning her by writing notes, but her response indicates a lack of comprehension. She requests a sign language interpreter. In this situation an interpreter should be called. If the woman's behavior is threatening, the officer can make an arrest and call for an interpreter to be available later at the booking station.

It is inappropriate to ask a family member or companion to interpret in a situation like this because emotional ties may interfere with the ability to interpret impartially.

Example: An officer responds to the scene of a car accident where a man has been seriously injured. The man is conscious, but is unable to comprehend the officer's questions because he is deaf. A family member who is present begins interpreting what the officer is saying.

A family member or companion may be used to interpret in a case like this, where the parties are willing, the need for information is urgent, and the questions are basic and uncomplicated. However, in general, do not expect or demand that a deaf person provide his or her own interpreter. As a rule, when interpreter service is needed, it must be provided by the agency.

For further information on the Americans with Disabilities Act:

ADA Website:
ADA Information Line
800-514-0301 (voice)
800-514-0383 (TTY)