Improving access to justice for people who are D/deaf and hard of hearing

A brief account of my undergraduate dissertation

I joined the Kaos Organisation (Theatre company and signing choir for D/deaf and hearing children), at the age of four and therefore I have grown up with an awareness of D/deaf culture and sign language. I have also acknowledged a lack of awareness of D/deaf culture and a lack of visibility of D/deaf individuals in day-to-day hearing life. So when it came to choosing an area of study for my undergraduate dissertation, I found myself wondering how this general lack of awareness might affect the D/deaf community in their experiences of the criminal justice system.

The disabled community are a marginalised community, which means they are more likely to be victims of crime and find it more difficult to attain justice (Roulston and Mason-Bish, 2013). Disablist hate crime is prominent in the UK, however there exists in society a ‘culture of disbelief’ where we do not like to think that others would want to hurt those with disabilities because we often view them with pity (EHRC, 2011). This means society is unaware of the everyday experiences of disabled people, so rather than try to tackle the deep rooted issues surrounding the victimisation of disabled people, focus tends to be on social care and protection rather than providing them with fair legal services (Sin, 2014). The ineffective responses of the criminal justice system in tackling crime against the disabled community is clearly rooted in the way that society views disabled people – as lesser beings- and therefore their struggle to access justice remains overlooked (Roulston and Mason-Bish, 2013).

Now, when it comes to the D/deaf population, despite many of its members not seeing themselves as such, they have been labelled under the umbrella term ‘disabled’, and this is evident in the long history of attempts to ‘cure’ D/deaf people and oppress their culture and language. This is because of a concept termed ‘audism’…

“discrimination against individuals based on hearing ability” (Bauman, 2004, p.240).

This is the overarching barrier which excludes D/deaf individuals from hearing, mainstream society, resulting in a ‘devalued status’ (Admire and Ramirez, 2017, p.15).  D/deaf citizens therefore face barriers which prevent them from receiving the support that they need from criminal justice agencies (Smith and Hope, 2015). These include:

  • Invisibility in the eyes of the criminal justice system – police are unaware of their unique culture and therefore have a lack of awareness of their needs.
  • Issues of communication – Police are not properly trained to communicate with D/deaf individuals and there are not enough interpreters to aid a large D/deaf population. Alternatively, ineffective methods of communication are adopted such as hand written notes. Which may be difficult for many D/deaf people, whose first and only language is British Sign Language (BSL).
  • Lack of interpreters – Having to wait for an interpreter can cause stress and anxiety and consequently disengagement with the criminal justice system all together (Rossetti, 2015).
  • Lack of specialised resources – Members of the D/deaf population may not report crimes committed against them because they do not know how to. There is a lack of specialised resources such as brochures for D/deaf individuals to use to learn about the criminal justice process and how to access services.
  • Fear – Some may avoid reporting because they are afraid of the barriers they may face (Barrow, 2008).

My research

The aims of my research were to discover how the D/deaf population perceive the criminal justice system and its ability to effectively support the needs of the D/deaf population. An online questionnaire was used where seventeen people with varying degrees of hearing answered questions about feelings of safety and the likelihood that they would report crimes of differing levels of severity. Moreover, individuals were asked about their faith in the police and also their satisfaction with the resources available to D/deaf and hard of hearing individuals within the police and other support services.

The majority of respondents came from those from the same demographic groups (White British, heterosexual, Christian and female), meaning that unfortunately, large sections of the community weren’t accounted for, who may indeed have had vastly different views of the criminal justice system.


Likelihood of reporting

The majority of people who offered their insight, were unlikely to report lower level crimes such as verbal abuse. 62.6% (n=10) selected unlikely or highly unlikely to report verbal abuse. As the offences rose in severity, so did the likelihood of reporting, which corresponds with previous researchers who have identified this as common among victims of low level crime (Chakraborti, 2017).

Barriers to reporting

When it came to the barriers to reporting crime, 50% of respondents did not think that the police could do anything to help. As found in the existing research around this issue, communication flagged up as a common worry amongst respondents. Comments made mentioned “delays with interpreters” and “lack of police training in how deafness impacts on people”. One respondent also mentioned the difficulty in collecting evidence involving a D/deaf person. As already noted, a lack of interpreters may result in police officers opting for other less effective methods of communication such as hand written notes which is not always effective for those whose native language is BSL.

How to report

When presented with using the following reporting methods: “phone, text message, email, at a police station or with help from family and friends”, the majority of respondents chose going to the police station to report a crime. This can be seen as a positive thing as maybe those from the D/deaf community are not as intimidated by the police as previous research suggests. However, if this is the favourable choice for most, then police stations must be equipped with the appropriate resources to respond effectively to this community. The second most popular option was with the help of family and friends. This could mean that there are not enough resources in place to allow D/deaf individuals to report crimes independently. Also, relying on family and friends can result in inaccurate translation (Race and Hogue, 2017).

One respondent selected “I do not know” for this question and two respondents selected “I wouldn’t know how” when asked why they would not report their experience to the police. This is worrying and suggests a need to focus on finding ways to make the criminal justice system more accessible to the D/deaf community.

“a lot needs to be done in relation to how to educate deaf people on how to report a crime. A lot of deaf people would feel they would get into trouble if they reported something or don’t want to because the police won’t understand/empathise with their problem” (Female, aged 35-44).

This comment brings the issue of invisibility of the D/deaf community to light. If individuals fear reporting their victimisation to the police because they may not be understood or because they may “get into trouble” the police need to do more to lessen the barrier which exists between the D/deaf community and their services. More must be done to raise awareness of these issues so the police can provide an effective service to all citizens no matter what their hearing ability.

Faith in the police and satisfaction with services

The majority of the respondent’s faith in the police was neither strong nor weak, with comments made not specifically criticising the police but rather the criminal justice system and its resources as a whole. When asked what would be most important when becoming a victim and needing support, the most popular answer was “being able to access support quickly”. However, regarding respondents satisfaction with the support services for the D/deaf community, only two rated their satisfaction as high. This highlights the urgent need for services and resources to be improved and made available to this community.

More general comments offered insight into the experiences of people with varying degrees of hearing ability. Audism does not just affect profoundly D/deaf individuals, but also prevents those who are hard of hearing from fully integrating. One respondent mentioned missing out and feeling excluded at events, as the acoustics in most buildings are very poor.  Another pointed out the fact that the impact of hearing loss on independence is often overlooked.

What we can learn from this

This research highlights the fact that D/deaf and hard of hearing people are simply invisible to the criminal justice system and their needs are not prioritised. Barriers to reporting include: a lack of BSL interpreters; and delays with those available, limited police knowledge of D/deaf culture and training on how to work with those who are D/deaf and hard of hearing, and in some cases, a lack of knowledge among the D/deaf community in navigating the criminal justice system and how to actually report a crime.


  • Education on D/deaf culture within the criminal justice system: The police do not understand the impact that deafness has on individuals and their knowledge of Deaf culture is limited. The police and all criminal justice practitioners should receive education on the history of oppression among the D/deaf community and its impact on modern day issues that D/deaf people face. PLOD schemes exist to educate police officers more about D/deaf culture and teach them basic BSL. These need more attention (Race and Hogue, 2017).
  • BSL lessons: It should be mandatory for all criminal justice practitioners to learn basic BSL. Especially for the police as they are the first point of contact and therefore it is essential that they are able to communicate with the people who rely on them.

  • Education in schools: Teaching children about D/deaf culture in school would help to change society’s outlook on what it is like to be D/deaf and help to reduce the segregation of the D/deaf and hearing worlds. This could be paired with learning basic BSL.
  • Advertising for services: Services such as InterpreterNow exist to aid D/deaf and hard of hearing people however they may need to be advertised more effectively in public places e.g. Posters on buses, bus stops, trains, in tube stations.
  • More visibility in the media: Films such as The Silent Child and To Know Him depict issues experienced within the D/deaf community. They educate society on the experiences unique to D/deaf individuals and highlight the importance of being aware of D/deaf culture otherwise there can be damaging consequences. D/deaf individuals should appear more in film and TV. Making the D/deaf community more visible may move towards society being more inclusive.
  • More Visibility in general: Lack of awareness of the needs of D/deaf individuals remains a prevailing issue. This includes those with different degrees of hearing loss. More focus should be put on ensuring alternative methods of delivering information are put in place in public spaces.

On a final positive note, there has recently been progress in the education system concerning inclusive attitudes towards the D/deaf community. The Department for Education and Ofqual are both in the process of reviewing a proposal from Signature for a GCSE in British Sign Language! (Signature, 2018).

A shorter version of this blog has been published on the International Network for Hate Studies:


Admire, A. and Ramirez, B. (2017) ‘Violence and disability: experiences and perceptions of victimisation among deaf people’, Journal of interpersonal violence, p.1-25.

Barrow, L.M. (2008): Criminal Victimization of the Deaf.

Bauman, H.D.L. (2004) ‘Audism: Exploring the metaphysics of oppression’ Journal of deaf studies and deaf education, 9(2), pp.239-246.

DeafHope (2014) Signhealth: DeafHope Tackles Domestic Abuseavailable at:

Equality and Human Rights Commission (2011) Hidden in Plain sight.

InterpreterNow (2016) See what you’re saying. Available at:

To Know Him (2017) Directed by Ted Evans [Film]. UK.

Race, L. and Hogue, T.E. (2017) “You have the right to remain silent” Current provisions for D/deaf people within regional police forces in England and Wales’, The Police Journal, p.1-25.

Rossetti, P. (2015) Victim Support: Waiting for Justice: how victims of crime are waiting longer than ever for criminal trials.

Roulston, A. and Mason-Bish, H. (2013) Disability, Hate crime and Violence. Oxfordshire: Routledge.

Sin, C, H. (2012) ‘Hate crime against people with disabilities’ in Hall, N, Corb, A, Giannasi P and Grieve, J. (eds.) The Routledge International Handbook on Hate Crime (2014) Routledge pp.193-206.

Smith, N. and Hope, C. (2015) ‘Culture, language, and access: Key considerations for serving deaf survivors of domestic and sexual violence’, New York, NY: Vera Institute of Justice, Center on Victimization and Safety. Retrieved on December, 18, p.2015.

Signature (2018) Latest News, Lindsay Foster: GCSE Update. Available at:

The Silent Child (2017) Directed by Chris Overton [Film]. UK: Slick Films.