N.Y. police train for dealing with deaf
By Jim Read, Staff Writer
The initiative is the result of a Sept. 23 incident involving a DeWitt officer and a deaf motorist who tussled in a McDonald's parking lot on Thompson Road. An investigation showed there was a lack of communication. The officer later resigned over the incident.
"We need to do more to better understand people who cannot speak or hear," said DeWitt police Chief Gene Conway.
People who cannot hear often fear they will be injured in an emergency because they might not understand what police officers or firefighters want them to do, said Frieda Heckman, director of deaf social services for Aurora of Central New York.
"I wasn't aware of that," Conway said. "That's why I think it goes beyond law enforcement."
All DeWitt officers will take the training, to take place this month. Conway said he plans to invite the members of the town's three fire departments, East Syracuse police and EAVES ambulance. Aurora is developing the training program with help from other deaf advocacy agencies, including Whole Me, the Deaf Advocacy Council and Syracuse Metro Telecommunication Devices.
While conducting a traffic stop in the parking lot of the McDonald's Restaurant at 6481 Thompson Road on Sept. 23, Officer Michael Shick, 24, noticed a sport utility vehicle had pulled into the lot. The driver "began to yell and flail his arms" while the female passenger "attempted to calm him," Shick wrote in his report.
The driver, Raymond Meeks, 47, of East Syracuse, said in his statement that he was trying to figure out what was happening in the parking lot, and was using sign language to communicate with his companion, Cynthia Ronalds.
Shick said he thought there was a problem in the SUV and went to investigate. He knocked on the window and yelled to have windows lowered. When Shick learned that Meeks was deaf, the officer said he used hand signals to communicate. He said he believed Meeks was able to understand him through lip reading.
But often, the deaf do not understand, Heckman said.
"Hearing people think they are doing just fine," she said. Only about 30 percent to 35 percent of the English language is visible on the lips.
The Aurora training will include an overview of types of hearing loss, identifying individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, communications barriers and some communications strategies.
Shick and Meeks tussled after Meeks got out of the SUV. Meeks turned toward Shick after being frisked for weapons and pushed Shick's hands away, the officer's report said. Meeks wrote that he turned to try to understand what the officer was telling him.
Shick, who later said he was worried for his safety, pushed Meeks to the ground, held him there and called for help. No charges were filed, but Shick said he was forced to resign.
Police officers who train at Central New York Police Academy at Onondaga Community College receive instruction in identifying and communicating with people with disabilities. The training, added to the curriculum in 1998, covers interactions with people who are deaf or blind and those who suffer from dementia, said Onondaga County sheriff's Deputy Michael Thompson, the academy's coordinator for training.
The federal government also recognizes the need for better communication. The Community Emergency Preparedness Information Network has developed a course to help communities and first responders develop better ways to communicate with the deaf.
The class, which recently was certified by the Department of Homeland Security, was offered at OCC in September. Heckman was one of the 50 people attending the class.
Heckman said she hopes the new training program can become a model for other emergency service providers.
"We have to come up with something better in dealing with people who are deaf or having hearing issues," she said.
Jim Read can be reached at or 470-2204.
Here are some tips emergency responders can use to overcome communication barriers with people who can't hear.
Speak appropriately, not too fast or too slow. Avoid over-enunciation. Volume doesn't help. Yelling distorts the face and makes lip-reading difficult.
Speech reading or lip reading cannot be relied on as only 30 percent to 35 percent of the English language is visible on lips.
Get the person's attention with a tap on the shoulder or by a wave of the hand.
Convey concern with notes and gestures. Say things such as "Stay calm" or "I am here to help."
Provide physical or visual guidance as needed.
Copyright 2006 Post-Standard
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