Law in Contemporary Society

Learning Lessons from the Deaf Community

-- By MaryamAsenuga - 22 Feb 2021


“The only bad thing about being deaf is the inaccessibility to the mainstream, Hearing world.” A Deaf character in Switched at Birth stated this when her Deaf teacher asked what it means to be deaf. Switched at Birth is my favorite show because it centers on deafness and the community. During the scene, as some students discussed the richness of Deaf culture and how they would never trade their deafness for the ability to hear, I was shocked at their celebration of deafness. Viewing this show opened my eyes to the different communities of people who, similar to my Black community, are also dealt harsh cards, but still find their way to success. Although being Deaf and Black are two different experiences, the connections allowed me to gain deeper lessons. As a Hearing person, I ignorantly viewed deafness as a hindrance before even learning about the wider community. I questioned: “How can you communicate in a world that you cannot hear?”

Yet, as I have begun learning American Sign Language (ASL), watching ASL films, and learning more about the American Deaf culture, I learned the answer to this question. Deaf people have remarkably created new ways to communicate in and experience life. Similarly, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.'s The Path of the Law implies that language, like water, only becomes economically useful when people are deprived of it. Deaf people have not been deprived of communication, like I once thought, they have simply reinvented it.

Deafness illustrates that as there are various ways to richly experience and communicate with others, there are different paths I can take in pursuit of occupational success.

The Deaf Experience in “Mainstream Society” Is Harrowing

To be Deaf in the Criminal Justice System is to be Ignored

It was not until my second viewing of Switched at Birth that I realized that Deaf people and I share something: fear of the police.

The National Association of the Deaf supported this point in a report that stated, "Deaf and hard of hearing individuals face greater legal challenges due to communication barriers that are typically not recognized by lawyers, courts, or police.” The injustices occur at arrest, trial probation, prison, and parole (Vernon and Miller, 2005). To further understand, I read about the real account of a horrible, and almost fatal, encounter between Mr. J (a Deaf man) and a police officer at a diner. Despite Mr. J knowing he had a legal right to an interpreter for encounters with the police, the officer refused and Mr. J was incarcerated without proper representation. Approximately 40% of deaf individuals experience communication barriers similar to Mr. J, but these experiences do not only occur within the criminal justice system.

Despite its Barriers, the Deaf Community is Richer than the Hearing World Understands

Connecting These Lessons to my Legal Path

Deafness has illustrated that there are various ways to achieve something. From an early age, I gained a love of learning new languages and this has culminated in my recent process of learning ASL. It has also affected my development as a lawyer. As a child, the desire for advocacy came early. From then and from watching Law and Order: SVU, I knew I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer who defended the most marginalized amongst us.

The problem is - without any lawyers in my immediate family, I wasn't sure of the specifics of what it means to be an advocate and attorney. It was through growing up with this show depicting the Deaf community and ultimately learning ASL that my development into a lawyer cleared my visions and solidified my goals. Yes, I have learned how to beautifully form words and ideas with my hands, become even more of a visual learner, but what has been the best part of this journey is how it's taught me how to be an authentically empathetic advocate. This has occurred because through learning ASL, I have had to learn and think about different ways to communicate that falls outside my comfort level. I have been forced to think about the daily inconveniences Deaf people go through when trying to converse with Hearing people who haven't forced themselves out of their comfort level to pick up a few phrases in ASL.

The reason why this lesson has been one of the most monumental in my development is because I understand that to be a lawyer is to be an advocate. I cannot claim to be an empathetic advocate if I am not willing to remove myself from familiarity to understand the struggles of my clients in efforts to craft intentionally strategies to win their cases. This is what learning ASL has taught me and I am grateful for that. The dominant language in my small world is English, but I took myself out of that bubble of comfort to be able to communicate with future clients who could be Deaf or hard-of-hearing. I must start equipping myself now with the tools to meet my future clients where they are at, not where I am at due to hearing privilege.

Learning ASL has taught me that there are always different ways to achieve a goal, whether that goal is communication or occupational success.

There’s More than One Way to Skin a Cat

My respect for the Deaf community has made me further reflect on my life. I have always wanted to be an attorney who fights for people. However, as I grew older, I realized that to reach that goal, I had to make a pathway to it. But, I had no idea what that path should look like. In The Path of the Law Holmes states, “When we study law we are not studying a mystery but a well-known profession”. I disagree. It may be well-known, but I still am not clear on what path I should take in the legal field. After observing and learning from the Deaf community who have created and reinvented new paths from themselves, I choose to do the same in my career. There is no reason to believe that only one “conventional” legal career can lead to greatness for myself and future clients. Just as there are more ways to experience and communicate within the world, there is more than one way to be an emphatic yet unyielding lawyer.


The Deaf community has taught me deeply, but the one most applicable lesson in this stage is that there are various ways to achieve a goal. As a character in Switched at Birth articulated “There’s no one way to be deaf”, I know now that there is no one way to be a lawyer. I have to create the path that will lead to my professional goals, instead of relying on a fixed template.

This revision shows we were on the right track: this is valuable writing for you to have done and for us to have read. A very significant improvement.

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r10 - 24 May 2021 - 13:22:50 - EbenMoglen
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