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December 4, 2004

City officers lend a hand (or 20)

From: Lancaster Newspapers, PA - Dec 4, 2004

For the first time, Lancaster police are taking sign language classes

By Larry Alexander
Intelligencer Journal

Published: Dec 04, 2004 8:37 AM EST

LANCASTER COUNTY, PA - Even under the best conditions, communication between a deaf person and an on-duty police officer can be difficult. Add the stress of an emergency situation, and it can be next to impossible.

That's why Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services of Lancaster and the city police department are teaming up to offer sign language classes to law-enforcement personnel."We believe this is a first for Lancaster city," said Jim Schneck, director of DHHS. "We've never had a sign class before strictly for the police."

The eight-to-10-week course is voluntary. The class currently has 10 students, including officers, detectives, traffic-enforcement aides and nonuniformed office personnel.

While Schneck was on hand for the first three classes, he has turned over the teaching reins to Luis Rosado, who will conduct the remaining classes, which are held once a week.

This poses a new challenge for the police personnel - Rosado is deaf, so students must learn to sign if they want to communicate with him.

"It forces the student to pick up the signs quickly," Schneck said.

"This has been a dream come true," Rosado said of the chance to teach sign language to police. "You need police officers who are able to communicate well with the deaf because sometimes there are not enough interpreters available."

In the first class, the students learned basic signs, including those for "Hi," "My name is" and "How are you?" Now, the students will begin focusing on police-related vocabulary.

Words including "speeding," "arrest," "interpreter," "doctor," "fine" and "judge" will be taught. The students will be taught to use the words in sentences, such as "Where does it hurt?," "Please wait for an interpreter," "Please calm down" and "Please give me your name and address."

"The goal is just learning basic communication skills that the police need to know when they are helping the deaf," Schneck said.


The idea for the class originated in the late 1990s, when DHHS conducted sensitivity training for officers, teaching them rudimentary signs and also how to deal with deaf people in general.

Schneck said the class was a "big success" and that some officers requested sign language training.

"We didn't want that enthusiasm to die," Schneck said.

The idea, however, languished until Rosado offered to teach the class.

DHHS, working with city police Chief William Heim, got the course rolling. Heim also made the community room in the new police station available for the Tuesday night class and allowed officers to juggle their schedules.

Schneck said it's important for officers to have some knowledge of sign language so they can avoid situations that could potentially turn deadly.

Schneck noted there have been cases across the country, and even in Lancaster County, of deaf people being pulled over for driving violations.

During a traffic stop in Lancaster about five years ago, an officer, unaware the driver was deaf, started to talk as the driver reached toward the glove compartment for a pencil and paper to communicate he was deaf. The officer had to pull the driver from the car.

"Right away, the police may think the person is going for a gun, so they grab the person and pull them from the car and pin them down," Schneck said. "It causes a very unfortunate incident."

Worse, under stress, the exaggerated gestures of a deaf person doing sign language may be mistaken for aggression.

"This has happened a number of times all across the country," Schneck said. "There have actually been cases where an officer has yelled, 'Stop, or I'll shoot.' Of course, the deaf don't hear that, and they have been shot and killed.

"Fortunately, that has never happened here in Lancaster County."


Sign language student Officer Chris Genetti agrees communication is an important component of his job.

"I thought it would be helpful to understand some of the basic signs because we do come into contact with deaf people and very few of us know anything about sign language," the 14-year police veteran said. "It's like knowing enough Spanish to get by. You learn enough sign language to be useful when you need it."

Madeline Ramos works in the police department's records section and is taking the class.

"I do a lot of the Spanish translating here already," she said. "So maybe I can be helpful in translating for the deaf."

Parking enforcement aide Linda Duschl said she's dealt with deaf people "numerous times" in the course of her job and thought the course would help her.

"This is a good thing, and I always wanted to do it," she said. "It's been a very good learning experience."

© 2004 Lancaster Newspapers