Getting pulled over by the police is anxiety-inducing for most drivers – but imagine if you could not hear what the officer was saying and had no way to communicate that.
That is the everyday reality for deaf and hard-of-hearing motorists, who are at high risk for misunderstandings that can escalate into harm when they are stopped for even minor infractions, according to members of disability rights groups who gathered Wednesday at the University of the Virgin Islands St. Thomas campus for the debut of the territory’s first-ever “Communication Accommodation Visor Card.”
Deaf and hard-of-hearing drivers can keep the cards in their car to facilitate dialogue with officers through symbols, pictures and phrases both parties can point to in the event of a traffic stop.
Additionally, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles will issue disability ID cards, said BMV Director Barbara Jackson McIntosh. The bureau also has begun using a new disability parking placard designed to hang from the rear-view mirror instead of being placed on the dashboard. Blue placards are issued to persons with a permanent disability, and red placards to those with a temporary disability.
Territorial Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator Julien Henley Sr. was instrumental in making the communication cards a reality in the USVI, along with advocates from the Disability Rights Center of the Virgin Islands, the V.I. Deaf/Hard of Hearing Advocacy Group, the V.I. Association for Independent Living, and the V.I. University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities.
The V.I. Police Department is fully behind the new cards and provided a week of virtual training for officers territorywide on how to use them to interact with drivers who are deaf or hard of hearing, and has produced a public service announcement as well, St. Thomas/St. John Police Chief Steven Phillip said.
“The training was very intense. I actually learned a lot – after 20 years on the job as a VIPD officer, now the chief. This was the first time we ever did this training,” said Phillip, adding that the goal is to ensure that “everyone is treated fairly and equally.”
“We are here to let the community know that we fully support this program and will continue to support efforts to ensure that the deaf and hard of hearing know that they are a part of the community,” Deputy Police Commissioner Celvin Walwyn said. “Anything to help improve their quality of life we will support,” he said.
That includes a new initiative to utilize virtual remote interpreter technology to facilitate communication not only with those who are deaf or hard of hearing, but also translations for non-English speakers, said Walwyn. “Within the next 30 days this should also be part of the plan that you brought to us,” Walwyn said.
Disability Rights Center attorney Archie Jennings said the day was a cause for celebration, and noted how far the U.S. Virgin Islands has come concerning provisions for people with disabilities, including relay systems to aid with communication at hospitals, and the territory’s Dial-A-Ride transit system, for example.
The effort began in 2014, he said, “and we’re now in 2021. It takes time.”
“One of the things that was always a little tense with the group, was impatience. I advised them, look, when I was born, there were signs up over the water fountains and over the doors at restrooms – colored, white. Well, you know, I’m 70 years old and there’s no longer those signs. … It took some time, it takes time, and with time, more change will come,” Jennings said.
Stephanie Brown, a peer counselor at the Association for Independent Living, who also is deaf, outlined just how frustrating – and even dangerous – a traffic stop can be for those who cannot hear.
“If we are pulled over by a police officer, even if the officer is saying something to us using his microphone, we cannot hear him or her talking,” she said through a sign language interpreter. “Any movement we make to say something to the officer can be threatening to him and cause him to feel a need to protect himself. … We expect that this placard will increase the knowledge and awareness of deaf people being hurt or killed in the community. Across the nation there are many reports of deaf people being hurt or killed by police officers who assumed deaf drivers were being non-compliant when they tried to explain that they are deaf,” she said.
The placards also can be used when walking, said Brown, and can indicate to an officer the best way to communicate, whether through writing, sign language, or lip-reading, though the latter is especially difficult in the age of COVID-19 and masks, and sometimes impossible in the glare of police lights when stopped at night.
“Our deaf community, which includes the V.I. Deaf and Hard of Hearing advocates, as well as all persons who are deaf or hard of hearing throughout the territory, are extremely thankful that the Legislature of the V.I. has sanctioned the need for this placard to be used by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles,” she said, referring to legislation that was passed to enable the new cards.
Henley praised the many groups and advocates who helped to ensure the effort succeeded.
“Today, I invite the community to join forces with us as we continue to break down barriers that are not only physical but electronic, in order to create an equal opportunity for all Virgin Islanders with disabilities,” said Henley. “All of our goals are not going to happen overnight, but if we set goals and learn lessons from the past, we will have a much brighter future for persons with disabilities to live complete lives in our community.”
Communication visor cards will be available to residents who are deaf or hard of hearing beginning Monday, July 12, and Disabled Parking Placards currently are available at any BMV office. To be eligible for either card, the driver is required to have their physician fill out the disability application, available for download at bmv.vi.gov. For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org, call the video relay phone number at 954-892-6783, or 340-713-4268 on St. Croix, 340-774-4268 on St. Thomas and 340-776-6262 on St. John.