Officers and deaf-awareness

Program: Fifteen members of the Police Department are learning basic sign language and ways to be more sensitive to the culture.

September 02, 2005|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Standing before a classroom of Howard County police officers, Ron Fenicle jerks his right arm back, hand in a loose fist, toward his shoulder, indicating the American Sign Language symbol for "I won't."

He tells the police officers, who are learning basic sign language skills, that if they see a deaf person making that gesture, the individual is not trying to be aggressive or preparing to fight.

"I'm just warning you," Fenicle signs, with an interpreter speaking, "because people may misunderstand the body language."

As part of a larger deaf-awareness program by the Police Department, Fenicle is teaching 15 officers basic signs, as well as a better understanding of the deaf culture.

At the conclusion of the three classes, which end Wednesday and are funded by a $23,600 grant from the Horizon Foundation, the officers will be able to sign basic words - including "hello," "where," and how to spell their names - as well as terms that will be useful in their jobs, such as "police," "robbery" and "license."

At the class this week at the county Gateway Building, the officers practiced sign language by playing a version of Boggle that had cubes with letters and hand symbols for letters, and the officers had to spell with their hands the words they found.

"You can't talk," said Abbie Fenicle, Ron's wife, who also is his interpreter. "You have to finger spell all the words."

The 18-month grant is also funding seminars to inform the deaf community about police and fire services, interpreting fees and telecommunications devices for the deaf at police stations. The grant also paid for 500 visors that can be placed in cars of people who are deaf. If they are stopped by the police, they can show the visor indicating that they are deaf, said Lt. Mark Joyce, commander of the Police Department's training division.

"The goals are to bridge any language and cultural gaps that may exist between the Police Department and the deaf community," Joyce said.

It is the first time the department has embarked on such an extensive program focusing on the deaf culture, and Joyce said he is not aware of any other law enforcement agency in Maryland doing such training. "This is our maiden voyage into the deaf community," he said.

The officers learning sign language aren't expected to be fluent but to have rudimentary skills and a sensitivity to the deaf culture, Ron Fenicle said.

"Just learning sign language itself doesn't really help," said Fenicle, a former Howard Community College adjunct professor who is deaf and communicated through an interpreter. "They need to understand the cultural aspects, as well."

That is why Officer Elaine Smith is taking the class. She said that when she stops a deaf driver for speeding or for other reasons, she does not want to misinterpret the individual's behavior.

"I don't want any misconceptions because it's easy for us to misinterpret," she said. "They use their hands, and a lot of the time, they look aggressive. It's not meant to be aggressive, it's just how they are."

That aggressive mischaracterization is a key aspect that Fenicle wants the officers to understand. He said that when deaf people communicate, their facial expressions or movements can be misconstrued as aggressive.

"For example, I would touch you to get your attention," he said. "And a lot of people would misinterpret that as being aggressive."

Fenicle said that officers also need to take into account other behavior when dealing with deaf people. For example, he said officers should not shine a flashlight in deaf people's eyes because it would prevent them from seeing and being able to communicate. Deaf people's hands also should not be handcuffed behind the back for the same reason, he said.

Pfc. Jim Iacarino could have used such knowledge and sign language skills earlier in his career, when he had to communicate with deaf people by writing notes back and forth. He said he believes it is important for officers to understand the deaf culture to better serve the public.

"Every opportunity I get to provide better service for the community," he said, "I try to take it."

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