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Language and the Law in Deaf Communities

Ceil Lucas, Editor

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Read chapter two.
Read reviews: Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, The Sign Language Translator and Interpreter.

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The Ninth Volume in the Sociolinguistics in Deaf Communities Series

From The Sign Language Translator and Interpreter
Written laws are like spiders’ webs and will, like them, only entangle and hold the poor and weak, while the rich and powerful will easily break through them.
Anacharsis, Scythian philosopher (11. 600 BC)

This volume attempts to untangle the complicated web of language used in legal settings that so often poses a perilous barrier to the Deaf Community and other minority language users. Chapter One introduces a fascinating insight into the world of forensic linguistics. Robert W. Shuy has worked in the field for 30 years and outlines three prominent cases, including a case with a Deaf man, where he was called as expert witness. Shuy sets out by almost mirroring Anacharsis’ point in stating unequivocally that “Less affluent minorities simply suffer” (p. 1). The reader is left in no doubt that the courtroom is a hostile and fickle arena. Shuy continues with the theme of ensnarement (pp. 1-2):

Nowhere else do we need someone else to do our talking for us. Nowhere else are we prevented from introducing our own topics and telling our stories in our own was. Nowhere else are we forbidden to interrupt the other speaker or ask our own questions. Nowhere else must we be ever vigilant to the language traps posed by the other side.

       Susan Mather, an associate professor of linguistics and interpretation, and Robert Mather, a federal disability rights attorney, examine the use of interpreters for deaf jurors during trials. They reveal the courts’ gross misunderstandings of the important differences between ASL and Signed English. Sara S. Geer, an attorney at the National Association of the Deaf for 20 years, explains how the difficulty in understanding legal terminology in federal law is compounded for deaf people in every ordinary act, including applying for credit cards and filling out medical consent forms.

       The first case outlined concerns a speaker of Hawaiian Creole: linguistic complications of the case led to the witness, Steven Suyut, being ultimately convicted of perjury and serving a year in prison (Shuy 1993). No forensic linguist was called as a witness in the case. As many previous authors on the subject have contested, it is not only helpful, but also at times essential to have the support of a linguist in any given case, be that as a support for the interpreter (Corsellis et al. 2001) or directly with the legal system (Katschinka 2003). The second case concerned a Mexican Spanish speaker who had the misfortune to have a Cuban Spanish interpreter, near inaudible audio tapes, a scanty translation of those tapes, a key witness who died of a heart attack mid-trial, and a judge who refused to take the testimony of the forensic linguist, Robert W. Shuy. This case also had a grievous outcome, namely, life imprisonment for the defendant.

       The third case described is the case of Mitchell Bien, a Deaf man who walked into a car dealership and was subjected to some very aggressive sales techniques, culminating in him being held, in effect, against his will for four hours. Shuy’s expertise was called upon in this case and he based his evidence on notes written back and forth by Bein and his commercial confiners throughout the four-hour ordeal. For any reader interested in Tort Law, this section also contains an interesting discussion on the linguistic sequence of offer and counter-offer and more detail of the mechanics and chronology of a business proposal. Thankfully, this case had a much more hopeful outcome, where the claimant was awarded $6 million dollars.

       This chapter is wonderfully written in a plain and forthright manner and yet with evocative language that draws the reader into the atmosphere of the courtroom. Furthermore, Shuy’s investigations get right under the skin of the communication and, moreover, miscommunication that brought all the players to that very dramatic space.

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Ceil Lucas Professor Emerita of Linguistics at Gallaudet University.

ISBN 978-1-56368-317-6, ISSN 1080-5494, 240 pages, tables, references, index

$69.95 e-book

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