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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Language and the Law in Deaf Communities

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If an individual understands these rights, he knows that the police are adverse to his interests and that any statements made could jeopardize his liberty. He should know that he could remain silent without suffering any consequences; police questioning need not be faced alone and isolated, but instead can be done with the help and presence of an attorney.

The Deaf People among Us

The Deaf people among us are Americans, contributing to our society each day through their work, creativity, devotion to their children, help for those less fortunate, and so forth. As vibrant and productive members of our national community, as citizens of this country, and as human beings, Deaf individuals deserve no less than the full spectrum of freedoms and protections guaranteed all Americans. This includes the protections guaranteed citizens when they are in the greatest peril of losing their liberty, that is, when they have been arrested and are subjected to police interrogation. As outlined above, the rights of an individual who has been taken into custody and subjected to police interrogation arise from the Fifth and Sixth Amendments. For these rights to have any real meaning, a Deaf or other non-English-speaking defendant must be linguistically present to understand what is being said so that he or she knows what the rights are, how to exercise them, and when to exercise them (Berk-Seligson 1990; Morris 1967). Thus, Deaf and other non-English-speaking defendants must be provided with a competent interpreter to be afforded the same fundamental fairness as English-speaking defendants. The failure to do so deprives Deaf Americans of their life or liberty without the due process guaranteed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments (U.S. ex rel. Negron v. N.Y. [1970, 2d Cir], 434 F.2d 386, 389).

In short, the rights guaranteed in the Fifth and Sixth Amendments can only be realized by a Deaf individual if he or she understands the Miranda warning and subsequent interrogation. These constitutional rights obviate the need for an interpreter during all criminal proceedings. In 1978, the federal government codified this constitutional right in the Federal Court Interpreters Act (U.S. Public Law 95-539). Many states have since passed similar legislation. Nevertheless, regardless of whether or not a state passes such legislation, the right to an interpreter in federal and state criminal cases is a fundamental right of Deaf and other non-English-speaking defendants, which arises from the Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments.


Like all of the world’s natural human languages, ASL is an engineering marvel, crafted unconsciously by the human minds of its users over hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of years. And, like all human languages, ASL is capable of expressing an infinite number of thoughts by utilizing a finite set of rules and meaningful units.

But, despite functional similarities between ASL and other human languages, a basic structural difference is highly relevant to this study. Specifically, visual signals known as nonmanual signals, which co-occur with the articulation of signs, comprise an integral component of the syntax of ASL. They are crucial to comprehensibility and fluency. But production of these signals in a manner that is syntactically correct is one of the most difficult components for second-language learners of ASL to master. Consequently, these signals are often lacking or used ungrammatically in the signed output of interpreters.

A Crucial Difference: The Co-Occurrence of Meaning through the Use of Nonmanual Signals

The human apparatus capable of producing and receiving rapid and varied sound signals differs from the apparatus capable of producing and receiving rapid and varied visual signals. For a sound-based language, the mouth is employed for production and the ear for reception. Since humans possess only one mouth, spoken languages are necessarily linear, constructed by producing one meaningful unit after another. Even if a human possessed more than one mouth, the grammar of spoken languages would necessarily remain linear since the ear and auditory nerve are only capable of processing a single unit at a time.

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