The Story You Need to Read
In November 2016, a client we'll call Mr. J began coming to Bridges for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing on a daily basis. It was clear from the outset that there he was experiencing some challenges, but as the weeks passed, those challenges began to crystallize. We realized we were dealing with an intellectual disability and a mental illness that had likely gone unaddressed due to the language barrier. As the days grew shorter and the end of the calendar year approached, Mr. J became increasingly agitated. He often wandered the streets at night, and various stores would contact our on-call interpreter to tell Mr. J to leave before they called the police. Many of us were spending hours each day trying to discern Mr. J's needs and to access resources that could meet those needs. In the best of circumstances, help for someone living in poverty can be hard to find. Help for someone living in poverty who has an intellectual disability, who is not literate in English, and who is struggling with mental illness feels impossible to find. Help for someone living in poverty who has an intellectual disability, who is not literate, who is struggling with mental illness, and who is Deaf, using American Sign Language, is very nearly a unicorn.
Over the winter, Mr. J decompensated, his behavior becoming more erratic, and it was difficult to witness. Where could he go? We tried to make appointments with a mental health provider, but that provider, in a very short meeting, completely missed the diagnosis, caring little about real communication. Within minutes, Mr. J left with a prescription he would never be able to fill for a condition he did not have. It is heart-breaking to watch someone need help and not be able to provide it, but it is not nearly as hard as being the person who needs help and cannot find it.
In late February and early March 2017, Mr. J suddenly didn't appear at Bridges for a week. We worried about him but couldn't reach anyone to check on him. Then, on a Thursday morning, the phone rang, and we had an answer. One week prior, Mr. J had gone to a local mission for a place to stay. This mission has not historically been welcoming to Deaf clients, and it was the middle of the night. They called the police, and as best we can piece together, when the officer put his hand on Mr. J to escort him from the property, it scared Mr. J who then tried to resist. Picture it for a moment. It is very late and very dark and very cold. You are tired and hungry and disoriented. You make your way to a place where you know there are warm beds, but you are not allowed in. And you don't know why. Maybe it's the intellectual disability. Maybe it's the mental illness. But it is most definitely that the people speaking to you, raising their voices to you, telling you to go, don't speak your language. You can see the angry faces but not hear the words, and you are confused and tired and frightened and alone.
Mr. J was arrested. He was handcuffed and placed in a patrol car. He was taken to booking. He was fingerprinted and photographed and asked about his health and asked to appear before a night court magistrate who set a bond. He was asked to strip down and be searched before changing into jail garb and being locked into a cell. And not once did he have an interpreter. Mr. J was carrying both in his pockets and on a lanyard around his neck neon-green cards that identified him as Deaf and that stated his right to an interpreter under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA).
That weekend, Mr. J's brother, searching for him, learned he had been arrested and called the jail. He was told he could not see Mr. J unless he were paying his bond, and the brother didn't have the money. He was told Mr. J would appear in court on Monday and to be present then. The brother explained that Mr. J is Deaf and uses ASL and needs an interpreter. He asked to see him just to tell him he would go to court on Monday, but that request was denied.
On Monday, the brother arrived in court, but Mr. J wasn't there. He had not been transported, just forgotten. Mr. J's brother spoke to a court officer to explain that Mr. J is Deaf and needs an interpreter and wouldn't know what was happening. He asked to speak to the judge, but he could not. He was told to return on Thursday because that would be the next time they would schedule to transport Mr. J. The brother returned on Thursday to find there was still no interpreter in court, and at that point, he called Bridges for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
All our interpreters (40+ of them) were in the field and not available at the last minute, but three of us on staff rushed to the courthouse where we found the case had been dismissed. Mr. J, however, was not yet free. He was returned to jail to be processed for release, but he had no way of knowing that's what was happening. We asked to see him to let him know but were refused.
As we started conversations with all the various parties in the criminal justice system, we learned that, in opposition to federal law, Mr. J had not been provided an interpreter at any point during his incarceration, including during medical treatment. Without explanation or communication or meaningful due process, Mr. J's liberty had been taken from him. From that moment on, we began inviting representatives from the different parts of the criminal justice system to a conversation, a summit where information could be shared and exchanged, a call to collaboration from which we hoped a more inclusive, respectful, safe, and legally-compliant community would be possible.
A week later, before the summit could be scheduled, we received another phone call. The police had again been called about Mr. J, but that person had also called us. We spoke directly with the police and informed them that Mr. J had both an intellectual disability and mental illness. The officer told us he was fine. We repeated that Mr. J was experiencing serious delusions and that he could only communicate in American Sign Language (ASL), that he was illiterate in English, and that we would be happy to send an interpreter to them. The officer declined and said there was no problem. We asked for Mr. J to be transported to Mental Health Coop Mobile Crisis (MHC) for assessment and help. The officer refused and then referred to Mr. J with an offensive term for a person with an intellectual disability and said he was going to drive him to the Downtown YMCA and drop him off. We immediately sent an interpreting team to the YMCA to intercept Mr. J. We notified MHC.
As our interpreters waited at the YMCA, we received a call from MHC. They had been called by someone from a neighborhood McDonald's because it was alleged that Mr. J had attacked a woman. The officers who had said they were driving him to the YMCA had instead dropped him at a McDonald's by himself, upset, with no money, and with no communication. Mr. J had repeatedly approached a woman with a baby, intending no harm but believing the infant to be his. Customers had restrained him, and in compassion, they had called MHC. Police also arrived on the scene, and that officer called us directly, asking what we needed to help Mr. J. We explained that Mobile Crisis was waiting to see him, and the officer agreed to transport him. That officer, a hero in this story, said he only wanted to make sure that someone who could communicate with Mr. J would be there. That officer recognized the absolute necessity of communication--in a crisis, to prevent a crisis, to help someone.
A few weeks later, we gathered representatives from Disability Rights Tennessee, the District Attorney's Office, Metro Nashville Police Department, the Office of the Mayor, the Sheriff's Department, the Mayor's Council on Disabilities, the Public Defender's Office, Juvenile Court, General Sessions Court, the Administrative Offices of the Court, and the Metro Human Relations Commission. Mr. J was there, and with his permission, Bridges for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing used his experience as the framework for a meaningful conversation about the needs and rights of the Deaf and hard of hearing communities. Change came and continues to come as we continue to collaborate with these offices to make the criminal justice system a safer, more inclusive system for those we serve. We are thankful for the genuine response and partnership of these agencies.
Mr. J was seen at Mental Health Cooperative where he continues to get invaluable treatment to this day. He is quick to tell you that the medication makes all his confusion go away, and without that confusion, he has great clarity about his personal needs and goals. He has been able to seek medical treatment for serious, physical illnesses. He has begun volunteering, and he soon hopes to be in a job training program that will eventually lead to his own apartment and independent living. He laughs now. He tells funny stories about the things we do that he finds odd. He walks his laps for exercise. He plays games on Game Days and interacts with the Deaf community who have welcomed him with open arms. He saw a play for the first time in his life, and he had lunch with friends. All of these were experiences and relationships lost to him while he was cut off in what he calls "confusion." And he had been trapped in that "confusion" and in battles and jail cells and hunger and loneliness because no one in his life was communicating with him. The lack of common language masked the intellectual disability and the mental illness and became a spiral from which he might not have recovered had it not been for the vision of a woman ninety years ago.
Ms. Washington was losing her hearing and wanted to learn lip reading and to teach others. There was nowhere in Tennessee to do either, so she traveled to Washington for an education that she brought back to Middle Tennessee, founding the League for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in 1927. Ninety years later, thanks to her foundation, we are bigger and stronger with more comprehensive services, and we are here for all individuals and families in or related to the Deaf and hard of hearing community. We were here for Mr. J, and we are here for the thousands who are educated about Deaf culture and ASL each year, for the students who learn and play here, for the community who gathers here, for the people who find jobs and homes and food through us, and for all those who need our support and advocacy to empower them.
The world is not yet all it can be, but we are here. And we are working toward our vision each and every day thanks to your support.