Hearing Highway Safety Project

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By Cathy Zimmerman, Hear Fayette Program

“Have you ever had trouble with communication or been totally panic stricken when you were stopped by police?” Many people who are Hard of hearing or Deaf have experienced such problems.

Everyone feels a bit nervous when a police encounter occurs but this anxiety may be heightened for people with hearing loss. We may worry that we may misunderstand what is being asked of us or that a communication breakdown could happen easily and that something really bad could potentially happen.

It may take some people with hearing loss an extra second to pull over when we see police lights. Our heightened anxiety and slowed response time may alarm police officers too and catch them off guard. The police officer may believe that our slowed response time and heightened anxiety mean that we are drunk, being disobedient or guilty of some worse offense. The police officers emotions may become heightened too.

I am here to share with you some information about our project, Highway Hearing Safety. The project was inspired by a man who visited Hear Fayette Program of St. Vincent de Paul in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. With the help of an interpreter, we learned that he had been arrested after a small traffic accident. He had no phone to text, and when helpful motorists offered assistance, he responded with his hands and by vocalizing. He was unable to speak to explain what had happened to him. No one stopped to help!

In another case, an older hard of hearing gentlemen explained that a gun was drawn on him as he began getting out of his vehicle to talk to the officer. He failed to hear the verbal warnings of the police officer to stay in the car. All he could see was an angry face and the gun that was drawn on him. He was really scared!!

After learning about their stories and the stories of many other people in our community, we decided to meet with area city and state police officers about the problems they may have experienced when encountering Deaf and hard-of-hearing indiviudals. We also spoke to emergency medical teams, firefighters, and disaster/crisis teams and learned about problems in communicating medical information at
accident scenes.

We researched about what other people have done in other parts of the country about problems that deaf and hard of hearing people have in communication interactions with police and other emergency personnel. Several states have issued durable, official visor cards. Commercial Websites offer cards that may be downloaded, printed, and attached to the driver side visor. The card can then be turned to the window so that an officer can read the message that the person is hard of hearing or Deaf. Please see Visor Cards for such an example.

Our team decided to seek a grant, to design our own visor card that was inexpensive, simple in wording, and available to persons who did not have access to Internet sources of information. We know that some people do not want to state they have a hearing loss, so we decided to use a noncommittal statement on the card. It reads, “In a noisy environment, DRIVER is UNABLE TO HEAR.” A logo with a circle and slash over a human ear provides another clue to the driver’s inability to hear. Communication tips are listed on the card for officers, and a block contains the instructions to the driver to keep both hands on the steering wheel until the officer approaches and asks for license, registration, and insurance cards.

At the time that each police encounter occurs, the cooperation and safety of both officer and driver is of maximum importance. It is important to remember that both the first responders and the person with hearing loss must adjust their behavior and methods of communication in order to maintain harmony in potentially dangerous and emotionally charged situations. When you communicate with the police officer never nod your head if you do not understand. Offer a pen and paper and state what strategies may help you to understand what is being said.

Included in our informational brochure is the message: “The officer’s safety cannot be compromised. Procedures will be followed by the officer according to the law to maintain the safety of all. Information on the HHS card allows you to state that you need special methods of communication—not special privileges.”

Team members with paramedic experience designed the reverse side of the card in order to obtain medical information at accident scenes. The injured party can read the questions: What is your name? Where are you? What is today’s date? Other questions ask about pain, allergies, medications, and existing medical conditions. A pain scale and body images can be used to indicate location and severity of the pain. Our card can also help paramedics and firefighters.

The Hear Fayette Program of St. Vincent de Paul is able to supply area audiologists, ambulance services, police departments, and social groups with visor cards for a moderate charge in order to promote safety and continue our program. Please phone 724-736-2000 for Cathy Zimmerman or email hearfayette@gmail.com for more information.

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If you would like to learn more about this topic or if you have resources to offer, please contact us.

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