Jury duty is a way for the law system to be unbiased when it comes to assessing whether a person is guilty or not of the thing they have been accused of. While this does not necessarily ensure a fair and equitable trial, this is the most effective way to avoid corruption and unfair judgement.
Deaf people have not been allowed to do jury duty for various reasons and this is something that has been a source of dissent in the community in recent years. Are we not able? The only thing we cannot do is hear. There have been many discussions online about this matter and while I am all for open-minded discussion and debate about the finer nuances of equality and accessibility I feel that there is one side that has not been presented properly and that side is one I agree with.
We should not be allowed to do jury duty.
Equality does not mean everyone should be able to do everything others can do. To me, it is about ALLOWING other people to do what they can. I can’t suddenly start demanding that I be allowed to become an Aboriginal Elder. Or a verbal Spanish interpreter. Why? Because I am not Aboriginal. Nor can I hear (ever) and speak Spanish. That’s only common sense, right?
Now, when you consider the fact that the jury is responsible for the life of a person, it is important to give that person the best chance for presenting their case possible. Interpreters can achieve almost impossibly amazing standards but one thing remains unequivocally true:
This is still second-hand information.
When the accused is being cross-examined, the interpreter will have their own interpretation of what that quaver in their voice means. What that frown is. Anger? Grief? Guilt? In court, a lawyer is forbidden from using something called a leading statement. This means they cannot use words that will persuade the jury (and judge) that the person means or is something. For example, a lawyer cannot say “This guy killed that person because he is mentally ill.” without proof. The court room must be unbiased. If they have proven without doubt that the person does have a mental illness, then you can argue with that terminology.
How many times have the police and Deaf people had altercations that were unfortunate and could have easily been avoided purely because the police thought the Deaf person was being aggressive simply due to the fact that our language requires far more use of expression and hand movement than they are used to? Especially in these stressful circumstances that require police intervention? (Sometimes not but the police are only human and must use their best judgement regardless if it is and was the right or wrong call to make.)
Now reverse the roles. We cannot absorb and assimilate the information as it comes nor can we catch the subtle changes as the lawyers do their jobs, which is to expose the truth. We will always have a lag. And the interpreter themselves cannot be a hundred percent impartial. This is impossible and will never be achievable. They are not speaking (or rather, signing) our language.
If a Deaf person were to be on the stand as an accused, then I would insist that the jury be twelve Deaf people because we understand how our people use body language, facial expression and hand movements. What may come across as aggressive to hearing people may come across completely different to us. Hearing people use tone of voice for this kind of conveyance of their emotional state. How can we, who base our information by watching people’s faces, presume to pass judgement upon someone we don’t know, don’t understand and are basing our opinion on someone else who may have taken the way that person said something that tiny bit wrong? Everyone knows the term ‘Chinese Whispers’. One tiny error, sure, but then two? Five? Twenty?
Then comes the judgement. Twelve people walk into that room and have to decide that person’s fate. I do not profess to know what happens behind these doors but I can imagine there would be a lot of vigorous debate when it comes to these especially emotional trials that involve the darker side of humanity. How on Earth is an interpreter supposed to interpret several conversations going on at once? To represent the Deaf person’s voice accurately?
Deaf people can do anything except hear. That has been our leading slogan for decades, if not centuries. Jury duty is exclusively about listening. And to do that when the ENTIRE situation requires that you hear what is happening is why I do not desire nor want us to become involved in that kind of situation. It is unfair for the court, the lawyers, the accused and for us. We don’t get to hear current slang being bandied around and most Deaf people are very literal because they simply do not understand innuendo unless it is Deaf innuendo. This is a fact, not my personal bias. We have our distinctive flavour of humour and our stories are told in different ways. Our culture revolves around sign language.
Ergo, I think to demand “equality” when this is not an equal situation is a fallacy. What I consider equality is allowing us to be heard in matters of education, employment and human rights. To truly become our own people we need to accept that there ARE things we cannot do.
This is one of them.