Two young Winnipeggers are urging police to be more professional when dealing with people who are deaf after both experienced officers who didn't believe them and refused to try to communicate with them at traffic stops.
Dana Zimmer and Jenna Irwin both experienced incredulous officers who didn't initially believe they were deaf during traffic stops.
"It's happened a few times. I'm not a bad driver but it has happened a few times, and sometimes my interactions with police are very cordial – very simple, I'll get a ticket and that's it, but every once in a while it's just a little bit different," said Zimmer.
Zimmer remembers a time a few years ago when she was pulled over, and the officer started talking to her after she rolled down her window.
"Of course they'll be talking, that's natural, that's what they would normally do, and I gestured that I'm a deaf individual and I use sign language," she said. "[They] just kind of gave me this look like they didn't believe me. They didn't actually think I was a deaf person so they just kept talking to me as if I could understand them."
Zimmer said she tried again to communicate that she was deaf, but the officer seemed frustrated.
"I felt that I needed to prove myself as a deaf individual, and I didn't know how I was going to do that other than saying that I was deaf. I felt that they just didn't believe me," she said.
Zimmer said the officer motioned for her to get a pen and paper, which she didn't have handy, so he went to his car and came back with a ticket.
She said the ticket had to do with a new rule she wasn't aware of.
"When someone says they're deaf, they need to be able to interact with them in an appropriate way," said Zimmer. "You're going to be interacting with different people in the community, and it needs to always be professional."
'They think I'm lying'
Irwin has experienced the same thing. She says it usually takes several gestures and requests to have officers believe she is deaf.
"I think the first and second time they try to talk, and they think I'm lying, and then I'm like, 'No, I can't understand you,'" she said.
She recently had an experience on her way home from work where she tried to use a pen and paper to communicate with an officer, but he refused. He went back to his cruiser car and she waited 45 minutes for another officer to show up who knew some sign language.
She says the officer could've communicated to her he was calling someone who knew sign, but he refused to use a pen and paper to communicate.
"I think sometimes the police officers just don't want to take the time or make the effort to communicate with us," she said. I think we all want to be treated equally. We want to feel as though we're the same as everybody else, and communication is very important. Eye contact is very important. I'm not too sure why they would assume we should be treated any differently just because we're deaf."
Women ignored during traffic stops, visits to stations
Disbelief isn't the only issue Winnipeggers who are deaf have had with police.
Zimmer and Irwin said another issue is officers refusing to deal directly with them because they are deaf.
On one occasion, Irwin had to visit a station to make a report, and she said during the one-hour interview, officers didn't look at her once, and only acknowledged the friend she had brought along to help interpret.
"I almost feel discriminated against. I almost feel that I'm somehow inferior. I feel like they're not treating me the same as they might treat someone else," she said. "I just feel upset by that. It does make me feel angry, but there's nothing I can do about it."
Zimmer said on a trip to her cabin once she was pulled over for speeding, but when the officer realized she was deaf, he stopped interacting with her.
"The cop firstly went to the people around the car and talked to them to see if anyone else was going to be able to communicate with them that wasn't a deaf individual, but I'm the driver, I'm the one in control. And they should have respected me enough and communicated with me," she said. "My friends have had similar situations. They've had other people in the car and the police officers tend to ask everyone else in the vehicle if they are deaf or not first before they interact with the driver."
Zimmer recalls an officer stopping her father, who is also deaf, when she was about five years old.
When the officer realized her father was deaf, he turned to her mom, who is also deaf, and then, to the children in the backseat.
"I was just a kid, and they looked to me to ask any questions about my parents," she said. "If I was deaf or not, it doesn't matter, that's not the point, I was a kid at the time. My father was there. He was the driver. He wanted to be like, 'Just interact with me.'"
When asked if the Winnipeg Police Service receives specific training on what to do when dealing with members of the public who are deaf, a spokesperson for the force said, "dealing with persons who have a disability would be on a case by case basis…. Treating everyone with respect, understanding and patience is vital. Taking our time and/or utilizing resources (i.e: translators) available to the service during these interactions is always an option."
Police offer to meet with deaf community
Deputy Chief Dave Thorne said he couldn't comment on specific instances, but that members of the service would be willing to sit down with people from the deaf community to determine if they can do better.
"When they are working on the street, I think they have to expect anything, whether it's a language barrier or a hearing impairment or any type of disability," he said. "Of course, depending on the situation that they would handle it according to their training or the circumstances they're in."
He said he is aware of some officers who know sign language, but there could be room to do better.
"We are always open and available and we would welcome a conversation to understand, 'Are we meeting needs? Do we need to think differently or do we need to approach things differently?'"
People who are deaf fatally shot by police in U.S.
Interactions with police can be high-stakes for people who are deaf; a lack of response to verbal instructions has led to fatal police shootings in the U.S.
In September 2014, a 52-year-old man deaf man was shot to death by police inside his car in Florida. His son was nearby, and whether or not he was obeying police orders at the time was called into question after his death.
In August 2010, a 50-year-old First Nations man was shot to death by Seattle police after he didn't immediately put down a knife. He was a woodcarver who was deaf in one ear, and the investigation found it was unclear whether he heard the order. His family was later awarded a $1.5 million settlement.
ID card developed in U.S.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Stuttering Foundation in the U.S. created an ID card to help deal with communication issues with police.
The card was released Feb. 1 after a woman named Kylah Simmons a U.S. Customs officer was accused of lying about her stutter. She later worked with the foundation to make downloadable and printable ID cards.
Zimmer and Irwin said they would be open to having an indicator on their driver's license to help officers understand they are dealing with an individual who is deaf, but both said they would be uncomfortable with something that appeared on their license plate.
"It is 2016 right now, and I know that everything is not accessible for me as a deaf person. Things are set up for people that are not deaf. It's a non-deaf world out there," she said. "It's also partially my responsibility as a deaf individual to know those things as well and know my rights and educate the community. It's a slow process."
She said officers having a clear process when dealing with people who are deaf, as well as a pen and paper handy would go a long way.
"Aim for communication just as you would with non-deaf people and that will go a long way," said Zimmer.