If you think that the Deaf community is small, try the d/Deaf lawyer community. The best estimates thus far, according to www.deafattorneys.com, estimates that there is 170 or so d/Deaf lawyers. That’s not much, if you think about how many d/Deaf people there are. Just to put it in perspective, there are approximately10 million with some degree of hearing loss, 1 million functionally deaf people. http://jdsde.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/11/1/112. However, things are getting better. There are more and more d/Deaf students in law schools across the country. What’s notable is that there are more and more prelingually and/or ASL-using Deaf persons entering law school.
To be honest, most of the d/Deaf lawyers (and I emphasize, most, not all) that I’ve met were either oral or late-deafened. I have the utmost respect for these folks – they struggle with different issues than people like me, the pre-lingually Deaf with roots in the Deaf culture. Many pre-lingually and ASL-using Deaf folks struggle with the English language because ASL is a different language, with its own syntax and grammatical structure. Also, there is a history of delayed language acquisition because of late detection of hearing loss. That said, I wondered what triggered the rise of these Deaf folks in law school? After all, law is a profession that demands perfection in English and oral advocacy.
The easy answer would be the obvious, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was passed in 1990. Most of my fellow budding Deaf lawyers grew up protected by the ADA. Many of them cite the ADA as the source of increasing number of Deaf folks in higher education. The ADA did indeed improve enforcement of IDEA and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which made the word accommodation actually mean something. However, just giving equal access in the classroom is not enough. Much of a child’s linguistic development takes place long before he or she enters a classroom. Deaf children, historically, has had problems with linguistic delay and subsequent inability to properly express oneself in English. Without this ability, a future in law is fruitless. So, along with the ADA, why are Deaf adults entering law school at record numbers?
Of course, I have my theories. I do think the ADA did help directly, but it had indirect effects as well. By framing non-discrimination towards people with disabilities as a civil right, the ADA created a culture of empowerment amongst d/Deaf folks. Even though not all of the provisions in the ADA have enough “teeth,” but the fact that people with disabilities were now a protected class, counts for a lot. On a personal level, I grew up with the mindset that even though accommodations could be sub-par at times, but I was entitled to them. Accommodation was no longer a privilege, but a right.
Also, the ADA mitigates some of the discrimination in hiring. After all, law school is pretty damn expensive, why would you want to go to law school if you knew that you would have severe difficulties finding a job? However, the ADA does not wipe away employment discrimination, but it helps.
Just to clarify – the ADA did require that higher education schools provide services, something not covered by IDEA and the Rehabilitation Act. However, in order for Deaf students to enter higher education in higher numbers, they need the tools that they developed during their infancy and primary schooling years. No law school would take a student, d/Deaf or not, that could not do well on the LSATs, write a coherent sentence and express himself/herself clearly. The ADA did enable qualified d/Deaf folks to enter higher education at more diverse insitutions, however, other factors contributed to the rise in the numbers of qualified d/Deaf people.
On the education side, I think the few factors really improved the literacy of some Deaf folks. One was early intervention. By early intervention, I mean finding out that a baby is deaf and giving him/her access to language (I don’t care if it is ASL or via CI, but there must be access a language), avoiding a crippling linguistic delay. I was lucky – I was diagnosed at 4 months old, a rarity at that time. Soon after my birth, hearing tests became mandatory. I think that early intervention on my part was the crucial factor, differentiating me from many other Deaf kids with poor English skills.
Also, increased education for the parents about hearing loss helped. My mother was clueless about this issue when I was born, but there were organizations and resources to help her. One can’t expect hearing parents to automatically know how to take care of a Deaf kid. It’s unrealistic. Increased parental awareness has fostered increased parental involvement. I believe that for any kid, d/Deaf or not, parental involvement in education is vital. However, it is even more crucial for Deaf kids. Deaf children can’t just pick up language by listening to people talking. They have to be taught and parents are the best people to do that. Unfortunately, that is not always possible (busy parents, parents who refuse to learn ASL or work with their children if they have CIs, etc.)
One another factor is captioning. I remember when I was very small – I couldn’t watch any TV shows or movies because they weren’t captioned. So I just watched Charlie Chaplin’s silent movies. However, when captions became widespread, I could access the mainstream ‘language.’ By reading the captions, I got a sense (albeit, somewhat artificially) of how people expressed themselves, and some vocabulary.
Educational access is one thing and language acquisition is another. It pleases me to see that recent developments (i.e. mainstreaming, captioning, ADA, etc) have enabled a higher degree of English acquisition by Deaf children. However, there are still severe problems in this regard. Oftentimes, I will meet a Deaf adult who can barely string together a sentence. One thing to keep in mind is that language acquisition is CRUCIAL for any successful Deaf lawyer. The increasing number of d/Deaf folks entering law school suggests that something is working. That makes me wonder what future d/Deaf lawyers will be like.