Advocating for the rights of deaf prisoners

Gallaudet students are working to improve the American justice system for the deaf by interning with Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD), a D.C.-based nonprofit.

Corinna Hill '14, is one of those students. Hill majored in history and graduated with University Honors. Her Honors Capstone thesis focused on 'The Social Integration of Civil War Veterans with Hearing Loss: The Roles of Government and Media.

“I grew up thinking that the prison system was fair, and now I realize it has flaws,” said Hill, of Boonsboro, Md. “Innocent deaf Americans are sitting in prison.”

HEARD ( is a volunteer-run organization founded by American University law student Talila Lewis. After an externship with the D.C. Public Defense Service, Lewis set a mission: improve communication accessibility for deaf prisoners and fight for those who have been wrongfully convicted.

“Only five prisons in the U.S. have videophones—Virginia, Vermont, Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Maine,” Lewis said.

There also are numerous cases of innocent deaf Americans who have been imprisoned for years, without access to interpreters or even a TTY.

HEARD’s goal is to travel across the nation educating people about these injustices.

Hill worked on the ground to involve people in sharing HEARD’s message. As HEARD’s community engagement coodinator, she gathered data from D.C.’s deaf residents and developed an informational video encouraging the deaf community to get involved in advocacy.

The 3-year-old organization also has the nation’s only database of deaf prisoners, and other organizations and universities look to HEARD for information and guidance.

Hill worked with a group of 10 Cornell University students who came to D.C. for a weeklong immersion session to learn about HEARD’s daily operations.

Hill also presented testimony to the Maryland House of Delegates in February, urging them to launch the Deaf Culture Digital Library. The library system would allow members of the legal and judicial system to access essential information about the needs and accessibility provisions required to reduce communication barriers with deaf and hard of hearing people.

“The DCDL will become an online state resource for the public and legal system,” Hill said.

Lewis said she was impressed with Hill’s initiative on projects.

“My goal with the internships I offer is to help both deaf and hearing interns take action in deaf rights in a bicultural environment without communication barriers,” Lewis said.

While Hill acquired many valuable skills, it was the new awareness she developed through her internship that was invaluable.

“I benefited from this internship because of my interest in criminal justice, and I got to develop more communication skills,” Hill said.

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