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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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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, cont’d.

       And while they certainly advocate a strong case against the use of transmission of what they term as contact signing (often termed under the misnomer of “Signed English”), as directed in the People V. Guzman (1984), the absence of an extensive list of recommendations is slightly disappointing for a more seasoned reader. Given their backgrounds (Susan Mather holds a PhD in Sociolinguistics and Robert Mather is a senior trial attorney in the Disability Section of the Civil Rights Section of the Department of Justice), the authors ensure that this chapter does outline many of the burning issues the function of interpretation in the courtroom. It provides an exceptional rationalization for any policy-makers, members of the judiciary, indeed, any members of the legal profession. This chapter may be particularly pertinent to those who live in jurisdictions, such as The Republic of Ireland, where Deaf People are excluded from jury service.

       In Northern Ireland’s darkest days, now more euphemistically known as The Troubles, lawyers were often referred to as “signers” (Beresford 1987), not because of their knowledge of British Sign Language, or Irish Sign Language, but due to the large tomes of impenetrable legal documents they used to bring in to prisoners to sign. Susan S. Geer gets to the core of the issue of legalese in her informative and often entertaining chapter. ‘When ‘Equal’ Means ‘Unequal’- And Other Legal Conundrums for the Deaf Community’. Geer is direct in stating her position: “Legal documents often involve pompous, convoluted, and dense sentences; repetition and negation; passive voice; and archaic terminology” (p. 85), but also fair in her assessments: “Many of the unusual features of legal writing come from an effort to be precise” (p. 93). Geer illustrates the germination of legal language through the development of law in a historical context (precedent, or judgements which have been handed down previously) and institutional context (the American Legislature). She explains the concept of “When Equal means Unequal” by pointing out that there are many instances where equal treatment actually results in a “substantial denial of opportunity” (p. 117). This discussion is buttressed by alluding to research carried out in the education sphere (Ramsey 1997) to consider the treatment of deaf children in mainstream settings. Treating the deaf children as equal was regarded as hampering their development, and Geer favours the idea of accommodation of difference.

       Geer touches on many issues of language and interpretation of the law (in the legal sense, rather than the translation sense). Indeed, her paper is broad in its scope and probably too far-reaching for the purpose of this review. She is mindful of how the concept of equal treatment has permeated by societal beliefs, when the provision of specific and specialized services would be more beneficial to the Deaf Community.

       Geer ends optimistically, by crediting the flourishing of individuals within the Deaf community, politically and legally, for a noticeable refinement in Disability law.

       My difficulty with the final chapter was its misleading title. I was expecting George Castelle’s contribution, ‘Misunderstanding, Wrongful Convictions and Deaf People’, albeit salaciously, to be a litany of misery and injustice in cases with Deaf people involved. Instead, the reader is treated to a summary of the preceding chapters with some legal opinion. To be fair, Castelle does profess innocence of the subject matter, and provides an excellent summary, including an explanation of the courts’ unease at allowing linguists to testify in criminal matters (as opposed to civil matters). He also offers an honest description of the procedural realities of the courtroom (p. 174):

Old legal habits are difficult to break. Even lawyers who understand the importance of clear speech will still enter the courtroom and fall into the familiar pattern of legal mumbling that is comprehensible only to the judge and opposing counsel.

Castelle concludes by making three major recommendations to the legal system. Firstly, that it improves the quantity and quality of interpreters; secondly, that the legal profession use clear and unambiguous language; and finally that the legal system expands on its awareness of the specific issues of communicating with deaf people in courtroom proceedings. Misleading chapter title aside, this volume draws to a close appropriately with the contribution of George Castelle, who may be an outsider to issues of Deafness and linguistics, but is no stranger to human rights and the exposure of injustice.

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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