Help on the way for deaf and hard of hearing drivers

Michelle Guerrero, 39, of Mineola vividly remembers the night her husband Israel was pulled over. A police officer and detective approached on either side of the car and asked for his driver’s license. The simple request was not immediately fulfilled, not because he was trying to cause trouble, but rather because Israel was deaf.

Guerrero, also deaf and sitting in the passenger seat, soon made sense of the situation and instructed her husband to comply with the officer’s requests.

“It’s very frustrating because we can’t communicate with them and we don’t always know who’s who,” said Guerrero via a sign language interpreter. “We thought, at first, it might be somebody trying to sell us drugs.”

Nassau County passed legislation last month directing its police department to produce information cards to be placed on the visors of cars operated by deaf or hard of hearing drivers. The cards, which will feature pictograms and written instructions, aim to reduce tense interactions between law enforcement officers and the hearing-impaired during traffic stops. Similar cards were produced by the New York City Police Department last June.

These information cards will be mailed to hearing-impaired drivers and available to Nassau County Police to improve communication between the two parties.

“We hope this will put the officers at ease, we hope it will put the drivers at ease,” said 24-year-old Nassau County Legislator Joshua Lafazan, an Independent in the 18th District comprising Woodbury, Oyster Bay, and Syosset, who wrote the bill. “We are totally revolutionizing the way that people with disabilities, specifically hearing disabilities, interact with the police.”

Lafazan, the youngest legislator ever to be elected in Nassau County, worked closely with Mill Neck Services and School of the Deaf, an organization offering educational, vocational, and spiritual programs for 400 deaf or hard of hearing individuals, when crafting the bill.  In fact, it was Christine Oddo, director of corporate compliance and community outreach at Mill Neck, who first suggested the creation of these visor cards following the widely-publicized death of Daniel Harris, a deaf North Carolina motorist, in August 2016.

A highway patrol trooper tried to pull Harris over on suspicion of speeding. However, instead of stopping, Harris led the officer on a chase. Once he got out of the vehicle, an altercation ensued resulting in Harris’ death. Similar incidents have since been repeated across the United States. Last September, Magdiel Sanchez, a 35-year-old deaf man, was killed by a police officer in Oklahoma City when Sanchez did not comply with the officer’s demand to drop a metal pipe.

Then, in early October, a video emerged of a deaf Paterson, New Jersey man identified as Raaseon Adams who was being arrested by police officers with excessive force. Adams apparently threw an item at the officers and refused to be handcuffed, prompting the police to pepper spray and punch him. An investigation is underway.

The bill is the second piece of deaf or hard of hearing legislation submitted by Lafazan during in his short nine-months in office. In April, he saw his first bill passed, which required that American Sign Language interpreters be present at all emergency press conferences in the county.

Christine Oddo of Mill Neck met Nassau County legislator Lafazan when he was running for office and canvassing her neighborhood. “He came right into my yard. I had the gate up and the dogs were all barking. He comes in and I’m like, ‘Wow, you’re brave.” After a thirty-minute conversation, Lafazan asked Oddo how he could get her vote. Oddo first requested a dog park, however quickly shifted her focus to a “more important” issue.

“Our good people who are deaf or hard of hearing at Mill Neck need an interpreter during emergencies,” she said. “During Hurricane Sandy, I was really worried about our deaf folks. I asked Josh at the time if he would be willing to help us get a bill passed so we can have interpreters for emergency press conferences. It turns out that was his first bill.”

Deaf or hard of hearing drivers can expect the information cards to be mailed to them in the next few weeks. The cards, offered in both English and Spanish, will also be available at community centers, fire departments, police precincts and DMVs throughout Nassau County.