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7 times sign language got someone into trouble

Posted at 12:48 PM, Mar 30, 2015

For people who are deaf or hard of hearing, sign language is often what keeps them engaged with the world, but like spoken word, it can also get them into trouble.

Last weekend, a 25-year-old deaf man was arrested in England after signing a derogatory word to police officers during a confrontation. According to Metro news, Linley Hassan was taken into custody after being intoxicated and disorderly inside a McDonald’s restaurant.

When officers approached Hassan, he allegedly signed the word “pig” in their direction. Unfortunately for Hassan, one of the officers is fluent in sign language.

Misunderstood sign language has led to more serious problems for people in recent years. In 2011, a pair of deaf men were stabbed at a club in south Florida when someone mistook their signing for gang signs.

According to CBS News, Sean Shuland, 33, and Alfred Stewart, 31, were both taken to the hospital with stab wounds after the miscommunication led to a brawl.

A similar case happened in January 2013, when a deaf North Carolina man was stabbed “several times” after someone mistook his sign language words for gang signs, according to Fox News.

In that case, 45-year-old Terrance Daniels was reportedly signing with another deaf person when Robert J. Neal, 22, saw and thought he was signalling a gang affiliation. Daniels was in stable condition days after the incident and Neal was arrested on multiple charges, including felonious assault.

The sign language interpreter to President Obama's left was slammed after using "made up" signs.

Perhaps the most notorious sign language incident of the recent past happened at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in South Africa in December 2013. A sign language interpreter for the event, which was televised worldwide, was using meaningless signs while world leaders including President Barack Obama were speaking. Members of the deaf community slammed the interpreter and the event’s coordinators in the days following.

Police have been guilty of misunderstanding sign language on several occasions as well, according to advocates of Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing. A famous case in 2012 came from Tacoma, Washington when a deaf woman was incapacitated and arrested after officers thought her attempts to sign while approaching them were an attempted attack.

According to the New York Daily News, Lashonn White called 911 — using a special video-equipped phone — to report an assault inside her home. When officers Ryan Koskovich and Michael Young arrived, they used a stun gun on her and then put her into handcuffs, leaving White without a way to communicate.

White, who was born deaf, was then held in jail for three days without access to a sign language interpreter. Last year, a federal jury awarded White $1 million in a lawsuit against the Tacoma Police Department, reported by Seattle’s KIRO-TV.

In February, a comparable case happened in California, when a deaf man was assaulted and stunned by police after trying to use sign language. The Huffington Post reported that Jonathan Meister filed a lawsuit against the Hawthorne Police Department, seeking damages as well as better training for officers.

Sometimes, the people doing the signing have been the ones at fault in a troublesome incident. In 2012, three men were arrested in Japan after investigators suspected they had used sign language to scam a woman.

According to the Mainichi Daily News, the suspects swindled 300,000 yen (about $2,400) from a 25-year-old woman using intimidation and a made-up story about a man dying from a disease. It allegedly was not the first time the men had ripped off someone by using sign language.

Clint Davis is a writer for the E.W. Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter @MrClintDavis.