On Tuesday, April 19, U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts said, “Your motion is granted” in court. Sound typical? It’s not.
Because for the first time in U.S. history, these words were spoken from the Supreme Court bench in American Sign Language.
To most people, that probably doesn’t sound like a big deal. After all, it’s just one little phrase, right? And it’s not like he said something cool like “Awkward turtle” or “My hovercraft is full of eels” either.
He just said a thing that judges normally say in court.
But for the millions of Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing — including the 12 lawyers who were being sworn into the Supreme Court bar that day — it means a lot.
It wasn’t until 1982 that a deaf lawyer was given an opportunity to argue in front of the Supreme Court. More than three decades later, there are around 200 deaf lawyers working in America. By contrast, licensed lawyers make up about 0.4% of the total U.S. population.
“Some deaf or hard-of-hearing lawyers doubt that they can actually practice law,” Howard Rosenblum, one of the lawyers who was sworn in that day, told the Washington Post. “But the real practice is based on intellect and deaf people have that in spades.”
“I think the biggest challenge has been to get people to give me the opportunity,” added Teresa Curtin, another deaf lawyer sworn in Chief Justice Roberts.
And that illuminates a real problem in our culture: The assumption that people with physical disabilities are somehow less qualified to use their minds.
There’s another issue, too, with the way we tend to dismiss those who struggle to communicate in standard American English. But whereas we’re willing to learn bits and phrases of other languages to help us move through the world — who doesn’t know how to say “hello” or “where’s the bathroom?” in at least one other language? — we’re much less accommodating of communication barriers like deafness.
It’s easy to assume that all deaf people have a supernatural ability to read lips, for example. But lipreading is a pretty ineffective form of communication. Even if you think you’re doing a good thing by speaking slowly and oh-ver-ee-nun-see-ate-ing eh-vuh-ree sill-uh-bull, most lip-readers can still only understand about 30% of what’s being said.
American Sign Language, on the other hand, is actually an incredibly efficient way to connect with people. It’s clear, it’s concise, and there are less complicated verb conjugations to worry about. You don’t have to worry about talking over someone in order to be heard. You can communicate with anyone in a crowd as long as they’re in eyesight, and that’s pretty cool!
Deaf people, like anyone else, are capable of amazing things. But if we’re going to make them find their way in the hearing world, the least we can do is talk to them on their terms.
By speaking those four simple words in ASL, Chief Justice Roberts demonstrated a willingness to embrace the Deaf community and meet them where they are. Instead of sitting back and watching as they climbed across the hearing barriers, that one simple signing action communicated something much more than words. It said, “I see you, and I acknowledge that you matter just as much as anyone else.”