Talking Hands And The Long Arm Of The Law

Read Gerard Best’s article “Talking hands and the long arm of the law” which interviews NODES committee member, Dr Ben Braithwaite.

Wed Apr 29 2015 Ger­ard Best
Published by Trinidad and Tobago Guardian

Un­der­ly­ing so­cial ten­sions sur­faced quick­ly in the ear­ly responses to the fa­tal shoot­ing of the 35-year-old Chi­nese busi­ness­man Hi Hong Huang, who died on April 7 af­ter an al­leged rob­bery in front of his Hap­pi­ness Su­per­mar­ket, off South­ern Main Road, Curepe. Af­flu­ent mem­bers of the Chi­nese community raised con­cern that they were be­ing tar­get­ed by lo­cal crim­i­nals.

But Na­tion­al Se­cu­ri­ty Min­is­ter Carl Al­fon­so, who met April 9 with a del­e­ga­tion that in­clud­ed Chi­nese Am­bas­sador Xingyan Huang, said he did not be­lieve that Huang’s at­tack was tar­get­ed specif­i­cal­ly at the Chi­nese com­mu­ni­ty.

Along­side race, is­sues of lan­guage al­so emerged, as Chi­nese in­ter­preters were re­cruit­ed by the po­lice to help with wit­ness state­ments. The vic­tim’s par­ents, Chuang Ji Huang and Feng Ling Lei, who ar­rived in the coun­try mid-April to as­sist with in­ves­ti­ga­tions and finalise fu­ner­al arrange­ments, speak lit­tle Eng­lish.

Mr Huang’s par­ents are part of a di­verse com­mu­ni­ty of peo­ple re­quir­ing lan­guage in­ter­pre­ta­tion in the pur­suit of jus­tice. For the non Eng­lish-speak­er, in­ter­act­ing with the Po­lice and Courts can be very difficult, says Dr Ben Braith­waite, a Lec­tur­er in Lin­guis­tics at the Uni­ver­si­ty of the West In­dies (UWI), St Au­gus­tine.

Braith­waite, who co­or­di­nates UWI’s un­der­grad­u­ate and post­grad­u­ate Lin­guis­tics programmes, point­ed to the de­tainees at the Im­mi­gra­tion De­ten­tion Cen­tre in Aripo as anoth­er com­mu­ni­ty of peo­ple sometimes need­ing lan­guage in­ter­pre­ta­tion in or­der to ac­cess le­gal and oth­er es­sen­tial ser­vices.

Talk­ing Hands

The same is true for those with no spo­ken lan­guage, the Deaf­ com­mu­ni­ty, said Braith­waite, who is al­so in­volved in the uni­ver­si­ty’s Diplo­ma in Caribbean Sign Lan­guage In­ter­pret­ing. He has a par­tic­u­lar inter­est in the lan­guage sit­u­a­tion of the Deaf com­mu­ni­ty in T&T, and gave sev­er­al lo­cal ex­am­ples of chal­lenges faced by folks with that par­tic­u­lar dis­abil­i­ty.

A 32-year-old­ Deaf­ man ap­pear­ing in court on May 9 2008 charged with in­de­cent as­sault and as­sault oc­ca­sion­ing ac­tu­al bod­i­ly harm, had to have his broth­er use sign lan­guage for him to un­der­stand the charge as it was read to him by the mag­is­trate, as the Court had not at that time se­cured th­e ­as­sis­tance of a sign language in­ter­preter.

On Oc­to­ber 11, 2010, a mag­is­trate­ was forced to post­pone the hear­ing of a traf­fic mat­ter be­cause the ac­cused man, who was­ deaf, was un­able to un­der­stand the pro­ceed­ings. The mag­is­trate then or­dered that the ac­cused be brought clos­er to her so that he could have un­der­stood what was go­ing on. Stand­ing less then a foot away from the mag­is­trate, he was still un­able to hear all the words from her. The accused then ex­plained that his hear­ing aid was un­der re­pair, so he was with­out it in the court­room.

“If you have a deaf per­son go­ing to court in Trinidad or To­ba­go, they’ll need an in­ter­preter be­cause they need to un­der­stand what’s go­ing on. And if they’re an old­er per­son, they have dif­fer­ent interpreting needs com­pared to a younger per­son.”

Younger peo­ple tend to use ­Am­er­i­can Sign Lan­guage (ASL),which was in­tro­duced in­to the coun­try in the 1970s, while old­er folks typ­i­cal­ly use T&T Sign Lan­guage (TTSL), Brath­waite said. Sign­ing differences can be cru­cial, as was demon­strat­ed by a near-cost­ly mix-up between a Deaf mur­der-accused and a Court-ap­point­ed in­ter­preter on Ju­ly 8, 2003.

The mix-up re­sult­ed in a guilty plea wrong­ly be­ing record­ed as com­ing from the ac­cused. The plea had to be re­scind­ed, and was at­trib­uted to a very ba­sic mis­un­der­stand­ing in com­mu­ni­ca­tion. The in­ter­preter re­port­ed­ly­ failed to ac­cu­rate­ly com­mu­ni­cate with the ac­cused, who was us­ing a com­bi­na­tion of TTS­L an­d ASL. The mag­is­trate agreed that the Court would re­voke the in­ter­preter’s ap­point­ment, and find anoth­er in­ter­preter.

This kind of misun­der­standing is not ex­treme, in fact it’s de­press­ing­ly com­mon, Braith­waite said. He gave the ex­am­ple of a Deaf man ­tak­en to court on ­Jan­u­ary 16 for al­leged­ly steal­ing $21 worth of items from Re­pub­lic Bank. The court heard that the ac­cused was un­able to un­der­stand of­fi­cial sign lan­guage, since he had received­ no for­mal school­ing and there were no rel­a­tives in court to as­sist. Be­cause the accused was un­fa­mil­iar with both ASL and TTSL, it was not suf­fi­cient to sim­ply get a dif­fer­ent interpreter. The mag­is­trate in­stead sug­gest­ed a fam­i­ly mem­ber who would un­der­stand the ac­cused’s form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion be present.

Again, on­ April 4, 2013, a Deaf man charged with break­ing in­to the house of a woman in San Juan and in­de­cent­ly as­sault­ing her ap­peared be­fore the court and was asked if he was com­ply­ing with his court-or­dered bail­ con­di­tions. The ac­cused had been grant­ed bail on con­di­tion that when­ev­er he left his home, he would be ac­com­pa­nied by his grand­moth­er. The pros­e­cu­tor said that the ac­cused had been seen lim­ing in the Croise with­out his grand­moth­er. His at­tor­ney in­formed the mag­is­trate that there was a dif­fi­cul­ty in com­mu­ni­cat­ing with him as he was­ Deaf. The at­tor­ney even­tu­al­ly re­quest­ed that a sign lan­guage in­ter­preter be present at the next hear­ing.

“In some cas­es, the most ef­fec­tive way of en­sur­ing ac­cu­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tion may be to em­ploy Deaf inter­preters, skilled in com­mu­ni­cat­ing with peo­ple who have nev­er been to school, and who re­ly on home-based ges­tur­al sys­tems. These Deaf in­ter­preters must of course be prop­er­ly paid, in line with their hear­ing col­leagues,” Braith­waite said.

He added, “The Deaf com­mu­ni­ty doesn’t on­ly need ac­cess to sign lan­guage in­ter­pre­ta­tion. They need ac­cess to a par­tic­u­lar kind of sign lan­guage in­ter­pre­ta­tion, one that they can actu­al­ly un­der­stand.”

Talking hands and the long arm of the law