Third Grade Reading Level: What Does It Mean for An Adult Deaf Suspect?

By Jean F. Andrews

English: "American Sign Language" in...

“American Sign Language” in SignWriting. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In reviewing confessions and interviews conducted in spoken and written English between the deaf suspect and the detective, judges and prosecutors have difficulty in understanding a deaf person’s linguistic competence. They just don’t get it.
Even when the videotape recording is replayed, the judge and prosecutor will listen to the talking of the detectives and use that auditory information to fill in information gaps of the interviews. They don’t focus on nor do they understand the actual psychological, cultural and communicative responses of the deaf suspect. And if the deaf suspect orders coffee with cream using intelligible speech, and smiles and nods during the interrogation to show compliance and obedience not necessarily comprehension, this even makes it more difficult for the prosecutor and judge to really understand how communication during the interrogation is just not happening.
A second hindrance to understanding this complex situation is when the deaf suspect tests out at the 3rd grade reading level on a standardized test. The reply of the prosecutor is, well… the suspect is married, has children, pays taxes, pays a mortgage, can even navigate drug deals and bank robberies, can cash hot checks etc. Therefore, he claims, this deaf suspect is very competent. Surely the deaf person is faking it on the test and really reads at a much higher level. Ah ha! He exclaims to the judge in Perry Mason fashion. This deaf suspect is a fake, a liar, and a malingerer.

Playing the Deaf Card

Playing the Deaf Card (Photo credit: Truda Glatz)

What the prosecutor is confusing is a mental and functional competency issue with the linguistic issue. He does not understand the implications of what an English third grade reading level really means for a deaf adult suspect whose primary language is American Sign Language (ASL). It does not mean the deaf person cannot conduct adult types of behaviors such as marriage, parenthood, relationships, paying bills, rent, etc. He can with the help of his friends and using ASL. Indeed, the deaf suspect can function at a much higher level than an eight year old hearing child in the third grade who spends her time with paper dolls, and playing hop-scotch and dodge ball in the school yard and who is largely dependent on her parents for her needs. What the deaf adult and the hearing child share is having the same English-language reading and writing levels, not the same cognitive and behavioral functioning.

What a third grade reading level means for a deaf adult is that he cannot depend on the English language to conduct an important interaction such as a detective investigation about a crime. It also means that if the detectives insist that he continue in English, then the confession can be thrown out in court. It means the deaf suspect cannot read the Miranda Warning or other documents that he is asked to put his signature on. Simply put, he needs a sign language interpreter for detective interactions just as he needs an interpreter for court proceedings.
While judges and attorneys understand the need for sign language interpreters in the court room, they often do not understand the critical importance of having a certified sign language interpreter during police interrogations, during the jail bookings, psychological and medical intakes, during jail and prison orientations, during grievance meetings, as well as during other important situations in during arrests and incarceration.
It’s the law.
Judges and lawyers need to listen. Linguistic competence is a cat of a different stripe than mental competence and everyday functional competence.

“Cat of a Different Stripe.”

Vernon, M. & Andrews, J. (2012, July). Individuals With Disabilities and the Issue of False Confessions. The Champion, Vol. XXXVI. No. 6, 34-42.


Jean F. Andrews is a Reading Specialist and Professor of Deaf Studies/Deaf Education at Lamar University.

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