The Rise of the Modern Deaf Lawyer

            If you think that the Deaf community is small, try the d/Deaf lawyer community. The best estimates thus far, according to, 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. 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. 


18 responses to “The Rise of the Modern Deaf Lawyer

  1. If you take Deaf Attorneys as your benchmark, then yes most are going to be oral or late deafened. There’s a bit of history here (to do with Surduslaw), which will contribute to the split as far as numbers go.

    Personally, I’ve met at least 50 deaf lawyers … many of whom sign. 🙂

    In terms of numbers, there’s other factors that exist internationally too, including adjustments to access courses and/or the profession.

  2. reading your post, what bothers me most is the d/Deaf

    it dont matter what the group the deaf person is in, either Deaf or deaf

    both are deaf.

    I would suggest to edit and remove all the “/D” thing, it makes your article all muddy.

  3. You’re champ!

  4. Midwest Guy,

    I understand your point, but the d/Deaf phrase has to do with culture. It would be unfair for me to lump them together because their experiences/needs/communication styles are very different.

    deaf = a person who has some form of hearing loss severe enough to significantly impact his/her communication, but does not use ASL and is not part of the Deaf Culture.

    Deaf = a person who is significant hearing loss who uses ASL and is part of the Deaf culture.

    two quite different groups.

  5. Not so Anonymous

    Well, may I point out that the young (persons with hearing issues) are more and more the children of the first generation to fully appreciate the impact of IDEA, Rehab Act, and (to some extent) ADA and related state legislation.

    Success breeds success. When our (persons with hearing issues) parents and grand parents became able to take advantage of the aforementioned legislation, they were able to improve the outlook for their children and grand children moreso than for themselves. Better jobs led to better access to health care and “rehabilitation” (and, thus, access to the early intervention you mention above).

    (persons with hearing issues) people should not discount the effect this legislation had on the previous generation(s) – whose subsequent success has impacted the current generation.

  6. Not so Anonymous

    Also, deaflaw, your distinction between deaf and Deaf would not apply with any of the (persons of hearing issues) people I know in my private life…

    I am decidedly not a capital “d” type person, but I use ASL daily and I wouldn’t be reading this blog if I weren’t part of the (persons with hearing issues) culture.

    It’s a scary notion that the (persons with hearing issues) culture can be so quickly and easily divided.

    Are there crabs in this bucket, hmm?

  7. Not So Anonymous,

    Actually, I agree with you in terms of the inaccuracy of the d/Deaf label, but unfortunately, I do think that it’s one of the better ways to distinguish people with different language usage. Humans need to categorize and, unfortunately, there’s no ‘third’ group for people like you and me, who are ASL-users but are not a huge part (if at all) of the ‘D’eaf community.

    Perhaps, I should rephrase my categorization: ‘d’eaf refers to deaf persons who do not use ASL, and ‘D’eaf refers to ASL-users. Of course, there’s always a continuum. I just didn’t want to deal with it here. A

    Your point about ‘success breeding success’ is an interesting one. However, your analogy only really works if you are an offspring of (people with hearing issues). Let’s face it, 90% (or something like this) of deaf kids have hearing parents. However, I do think that your idea can be applied to role models. Previous success with IDEA and the Rehabilitation Act bred ‘more successful’ d/Deaf persons who served as mentors and role models to d/Deaf children.

    Of course, you could have been talking about our ‘parents’ in a figurative sense…that would need the deaf (encompassing both deaf and Deaf persons) to truly be a cohesive community. Of course, that’s not always the truth. We don’t all live in the same areas, after all (with the notable exception of DC and Rochester 🙂 )

  8. I remember talking with a deaf attorney who went to law school in the 1980s and he said that VR had to pay for his interpreters. I believe that today most if not all accommodations are provided by the schools themselves.

    Is there a reason for this difference? Did the ADA change something, such as requiring the schools and not VR to pay for interpreters?

  9. Should deaf lawyers be unfettered with Bias ? We’ve read of deaf lawyers going online being VERY biased about certain issues, how do they resolve this with clients who are not the same ‘deaf’ as they are ? who they have attacked before online ?

    Would an ‘ASL’ lawyer truly fight the case for a CI user /Oralist etc ? some have adopted a very anti-approach to them… or simply only taken clients who use ASL. We’d like to think they are neutral, but online says they aren’t.

  10. your argument is illogical at best.

    a Black guy, a black guy (f there is a such thing as b/Black guy)

    but they stand alone, what do you see ? a black guy. nothing more.

    a deaf person stands alone, he/she is a deaf person, nothing more.

    a deaf lawyer thats what they are, they are not a “D”eaf lawyer, they are a lawyer, who happen to be deaf.

  11. I’m a psychologist who’s worked with Deaf (and “deaf”) people for the past 30+ years (definition: Old Fart). If you think there are few Deaf lawyers (which is true), try counting the number of Deaf Psychiatrists! There are a handful of Hearing Psychiatrists who sign quite well, but to my knowledge, NO Deaf MD’s with specialization in Psychiatry.

    Yes, there are a good number of Deaf Psychologists, but Deaf people with psychiatric disorders should have the option of working with a Psychiatrist who signs fluently! Even with excellent Social Workers, Case Managers, Psychologists, etc, the BOSS of the Treatment Team is the Psychiatrist, and that person can veto whatever the “culturally Deaf” members of the team wish to do.

    As bright young Deaf people consider a career, please think about MEDICAL SCHOOL, and a specialization in psychiatry… Thousands of Deaf people need you desperately!

  12. Midwest guy,

    Your point is well taken. However, i do think the disnictions between ‘d’eaf and ‘D’eaf really shows the cultural split in the deaf community. There are ways that you can belong in both communities at once. If you look at the ‘d’eaf community as a large community of hearing impaired persons with a small subcategory of ‘D’eaf person, you’re right, you can refer to any old lawyer with hearing issues as a ‘d’eaf lawyer. However, that categorize obviates REAL cultural differences between a person who does not use sign language (or uses it in a minimal way), relies mostly on his/her hearing, associates with mostly hearing people and a person who uses ASL as his/her PRIMARY form of communication and have mostly ‘D’eaf friends

    Moreover, I felt that I would do the culturally Deaf injustice if I did not acknowledge them by imposing the ‘d’eaf label on them, a label they reject. Both aspects of deafness are important parts of the community in whole. I just do not feel that using the lower-case deaf label would be appropriate to refer to two different types of persons.

    agree to disagree. :).

  13. Deaflaw,

    Your words strike a chord here.

    We all lose some sort of hearing, and are immediately catergorize like a supermarket with fresh foods catergorize in order.

    I grew up in a mainstreamed environment and went to a deaf school during adolescence with an assumption that I would be accepted because I literally thought, with my hearing loss and my signing skills. I would be welcome! It was hell. I was not accepted because I spoke and signed at the same time. I was tauted and bullied by deaf students because they saw my lips moving while I signed. I had to give up speaking because I want to respect their deaf culture and their tauting and bullied had decreased because I stop speaking. Imagine how much unspeakable power it had held over me to cave under intense pressure for me to stop speaking.

    Isn’t it culturally injustice for mainstreamed peer to conform his/her way to satisfy ASL peers out of fear to be rejected by the whole group? Where is the respect in return if mainstreamed peer do this? It is certainly culturally deaf injustice to me.

    Which one is culturally approriate? Hmmm….

  14. Hey there again, deaflaw.

    This post got me thinking about something you wrote earlier, about how you fell in love with the written language. You certainly write beautifully, from what I’ve seen.

    Granted, fewer and fewer young Americans, even those ostensibly “hearing,” seem to write at all well, from what I’ve experienced. Still, I’m under the impression that an even lower, perhaps much lower percentage of the prelingually deaf learn to write prose of the caliber of yours. And I think I understand why this is.
    To me, the written language at its most beautiful seems an extension of the musical power of the spoken language. Poetry comes alive for me only when I can tune into its rhythm and timbre; but when I get it, I *get* it. Some of the opinions and other stuff I’ve read by Justice Cardozo seem almost impossible to understand with any degree of absolute specificity (just what exactly is “the punctilio of honor most sensitive” anyway?), but hey, it’s all gorgeous on paper and in the ear. Etc.

    I know next to know ASL, but I have every reason to believe that its grammar is also capable of framing startling beauty, equivalent in its own way to the music lurking behind the written language, but also radically different. I know I will never fully grasp that beauty hidden in the recesses of ASL’s possibilities, unless I can attune myself to ASL’s inner soul.

    What I don’t understand is, what does a prelingually deaf person such as yourself see in written English that you can fall in love with it? Have you managed somehow to intuit, to reverse engineer the music and the rhythm?

  15. Hi Deaflaw,

    The website appears to be down. I am looking for an attorney with disability experience for a work-related issue. Anyone have any leads in the Boston Massachusetts area?

    TIA, Ben

  16. When I say I am “D”eaf. I do not have to say I am partially deaf or profoundly deaf. I am just Deaf! “D”eaf means I am valued.

  17. I was born deaf, but it was caught early and I had access to some of the best doctors and technology money could buy. I ultimately graduated college and also law school. I entered law school with aspirations to be a trial attorney.

    However, during my first year of law school I suffered what is suspected to be a stress induced hearing loss whereupon I lost a huge amount of hearing, thereby rendering me profoundly deaf. This was a devastating development and I got through law school while largely ignoring professors (because I could no longer hear them very well) and simply teaching myself the law through the books. The only oral advocacy training I received was through Trial Advocacy courses, which I passed with flying colors, even receiving the 2nd highest grade int he class. The professors where very accommodating to my hearing.

    After law school I passed the bar and decided I wanted to continue my aspirations to be a trial lawyer. The only problem is that I have struggled mightily in many aspects of trying to be a trial lawyer due to my late hearing loss. Everything from simply talking on the phone to clients, to trying to get through a simple hearing has been much more difficult than I anticipated.

    I began my quest to be a trial attorney by joining the San Francisco Public Defender’s office in a volunteer attorney position that enabled me to handle a full caseload and take cases to trial.

    At one such trial I was subjected to poor treatment by the judge who had clearly not had a deaf attorney in the courtroom before. Although I had free reign in the courtroom in terms of where I could position myself to lipread, the judge quickly took to treating me with disdain after my numerous requests to have things repeated and even refusing to allow a witness to restate an answer to a question I had, instead forcing me to ask the court reporter to read it back.

    But the most incredible thing that happened was when there was an objection to a question I had asked, and the judge undertook a lengthy explanation of why the objection would be sustained, and as I waited for him to finish, he said, “Did you hear that?” in what was the most patronizing voice possible.

    I would like to know what the “deaf,” “Deaf” community and everyone else in between has to say about what this judge did. The Public Defender’s office is very much behind me and we are trying to figure out how to proceed. Knowing where the “deaf” and “Deaf” community stand would be extremely helpful.

  18. hi. i am deaf and i want tob become deaf lawyer.

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