Communicating Effectively with the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Corrections

By Paul Singleton

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) was signed into law on July 26, 1990. It envisioned a nation where Americans with disabilities would become fully integrated into the American Society.

Today, we more than expect Americans with disabilities to be properly integrated into American Society with reasonable accommodations. Hotels have accessible showers for elderly guests. Ramps in our government buildings are designed for people with wheelchairs. These very same ramps are now widely used by parents pushing their baby carriages, reinforcing how accessibility can be for everyone.

Closed-captioning is available in all television sets in America, including English or Spanish captioning. Disability accommodations have become more “universally accessible,” making product and service designs far more available to the greater general public, including housing, transportation, telecommunications and jails.

Title II of the ADA, regulated by the Department of Justice, requires that state and local government entities provide reasonable accommodations to Americans with disabilities. As state and local taxpayers, they are entitled to local government services. The ADA also requires state and local government entities provide effective communication with Deaf or Hard of Hearing Americans.

For Deaf or Hard of Hearing Americans, reasonable accommodations should be tailored to individuals’ specific disabilities and capabilities. Accommodations vary widely among Deaf person or Hard of Hearing individuals and they are not always easily understood.

Prisons and jails tend to group “Deaf” or “Hard of Hearing” individuals into one disability category, “Hearing Impaired.” This is, in no way, a “best practice.”

Delivering key resources specifically tailored to individuals’ specific needs and abilities is critical to enabling the “effective communication” the ADA envisioned and, importantly, mandated by law more than 30 years ago.

Here are some of the key resources and ADA protocols that can help law enforcement more effectively communicate with Deaf or Hard of Hearing in jails and prisons.

Title IV of the ADA, “Telecommunication Relay Services (TRS),” requires the federal government to provide relay services for Deaf or Hard of Hearing Americans to access the telecommunication system in the United States at no cost. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) manages TRS accessibility and provides the following six telecommunication relay services (

    1. Captioned Telephone Services (CTS)is used by persons with hearing loss who have some residual hearing. CTS involves the use of a captioned telephone which has a built-in screen that displays real-time text captions.


    1. Internet Protocol Captioned Telephone Service (IP CTS) is used by persons who can speak and have some residual hearing. Like CTS, it allows the user to simultaneously listen to the other party and read the captions of what the other party is saying. IP CTS uses the internet.


    1. Internet Protocol Relay Service (IP Relay) allows persons with a hearing or speech disability to use Telecommunications Relay Service through a computer or web-enabled device.


    1. Speech To Speech Relay Service (STS) enables persons with a speech disability to make telephone calls using their own voice or an assistive voice device.


    1. TTY-based Telecommunication Relay Service involves the use of Text Telephones (TTYs).  TTYs use keyboards for typing messages and screens for displaying messages.


    1. Video Relay Service (VRS) allows persons who use American Sign Language to use video equipment to communicate with voice telephone users. A video link allows a communication assistant (CA) and the ASL user to view and use sign language with each other and the CA interprets the conversations between the parties.

These six different relay services show that the FCC wants to ensure that appropriate telecommunication relay services are provided to Deaf or Hard of Hearing Americans and to those who use American Sign Language (ASL).

All six TRS services are provided at no cost to Americans who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing and who may need one, two or all of the relay services. The FCC provides these services 24/7/365 through several different providers. The FCC is working with inmate telephone services providers to include TRS services when they provide broadband telephone services to prisons and jails larger than 50 offenders under the ADA law,

TRS have started to migrate away from the older TTY (teletypewriter) technology to today’s modern internet-based Captioned Telephones and VRS technologies. Deaf individuals have mostly transitioned to VRS and no longer use TTYs.

A Deaf or Hard of Hearing person may have different accommodation solutions than the examples provided below, so it is always best to ask them what they need to be able to use a jail phone.

  1. Hard of Hearing individual who can hear well and does speak; does not use ASL.
    1. Hearing aid compatible telephones, amplified headsets, volume control, Captioned Telephone, TTY Relay, Voice Carry Over
  1. Hard of Hearing individual who can hear some and does speak, can use some ASL.
    1. Strong hearing aids, Interpreters, Captioned Telephone, TTY Relay, Video Relay Services with Voice Carry Over
  1. Deaf individual who may hear some, uses some speech, uses ASL well.
    1. Strong hearing aids, Interpreters, Captioned Telephone, TTY Relay, Video Relay Services with Voice Carry Over
  1. Deaf individual who does not use hearing aids, does not speak, uses ASL as primary language.
    1. ASL Interpreters, TTY Relay, Video Relay Services

Prisons and jails have the responsibility to properly identify an offender’s individual hearing and speaking capabilities during intake process and the appropriate TRS services for them to use. Classifying all deaf or hard of hearing under one “hearing impaired” label is a major barrier to enabling effective communication and delivering an appropriate match of TRS service. Inmate telephone service providers and the FCC’s TRS service providers are also dependent on prisons and jails to properly classify the offender’s levels of hearing and communication capabilities to provide the right types of TRS services.

The telephone enables those in jails and prisons to seek opportunities in housing, employment, or transportation; to effectively communicate with case workers or probation officers; and to contact their family and friends. All of this helps reduce recidivism and increase the likelihood of an inmate’s successful return to society.

Without question, access to effective communication is one of the most important and valuable resources for inmates – all inmates – regardless of their ability to hear or speak.

Paul Singleton is a National Director for 15 years with Purple Communications, Inc., a FCC Video Relay Services provider. Paul has specialized in ADA and Corrections for eight years, partnering with inmate telephone service providers in providing Video Relay Services to Deaf and Hard of Hearing offenders who use American Sign Language throughout the United States. Paul can be reached at