When You Get Pulled Over and Can’t Hear: The Pearl Pearson Story

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Pearl Pearson is your typical father and grandfather. He loves his family and respects the law enforcement careers his son and son-in-law pursue. Back in January, Pearl was pulled over by a highway patrolman on a traffic violation. When the officer commanded an action, Pearl didn’t respond and the situation turned violent. Police surveillance video shows Pearl being assaulted by the patrolman, handcuffed, and led to the patrol car. The reason Pearl didn’t respond to the officer is because he could not hear him. Pearl is deaf.

Pearl Pearson, in a photo taken after the assault

Pearl Pearson, in a photo taken after the assault


For the record, Lipreading Mom is a friend of Pearl’s son, Dack, who is a police officer. Dack and I attended the same high school more than 20 years ago. Also to be noted is the assault on Pearl took place in Oklahoma where my father served in law enforcement for 40 years and retired last year. Most significantly, I am a person with hearing loss and have been in a situation in which I could not hear a patrol car’s siren until it had followed my car for two miles. It was scary for me as a young woman to be shouted out and told to step out of my car immediately by an officer who was visibly upset. He didn’t know I had hearing loss because I didn’t tell him.

Does Telling an Officer You Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing Make a Difference?

In Pearl’s case, he did have a note on his car visor and driver’s license indicating he is deaf. According to PearlPearson.com, a site set up to support the Pearson family, Pearl was about to show the visor card when he was assaulted. He was then denied a sign language interpreter after his arrest. This made communication difficult since Pearl’s first language is American Sign Language (ASL).

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In my case, I had nothing on my driver’s license or visor to indicate I have hearing loss. Because of the officer’s loud voice and my ability to lip read, I was able to hear and respond to his questions. I walked away with a speeding ticket.

Many years after being pulled over, I have learned the importance of letting officers know I have hearing loss. In another traffic-related incident in which an officer pulled me over for making a sharp turn, I responded differently than before. My hearing aids were visible and I indicated not being able to hear the police siren because of my hearing loss. This time, I walked away with a warning.

Why Pearl Pearson’s Case Is Important

This month, the Pearson family heads to court in Oklahoma to seek justice regarding the arrest and assault. Pearl still does not know why he was assaulted, nor does his family.

In an email interview with Pearl’s son, Dack, he expressed how imperative it is for law enforcement to be trained to understand communication needs of the deaf and hard of hearing (HoH).

“This incident has brought me understanding to what deaf/HoH people deal with on a daily basis,” Dack Pearson said. “Yet still many are not compliant with law regarding the deaf. I feel Oklahoma is behind the curve with business, hospitals, clinics, courts, law enforcement agencies, etc. in complying with the law. My hope is that my father’s case will force Oklahoma to adhere to the needs of the deaf.”

Pearl’s case has drawn national attention with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In an online petition, the ACLU has called for the Department of Justice to mandate all law enforcement officers be trained in the needs of the deaf and hard of hearing. Read the petition here.

In Oklahoma, Pearl’s supporters have created a fundraising event on August 22 to help pay for his medical and legal expenses. “Having the community’s support is what makes the difference in those moments when justice seems out of reach,” said Janice Woods in an email interview. “Hopefully one of the outcomes of what happened to my dad is Oklahomans in general will become more knowledgeable on accessibility for people with disabilities, and Oklahomans will not tolerate ignorance any further.”

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“I’ve experienced overwhelming support from fellow officers, family and friends,” Dack Pearson added. “This incident shocks the conscience to anyone that is exposed to the story, which often makes people question why. In due time, when the facts become public, I feel regardless of the outcome many will not change their opinion or support for my father.”

Know Your Rights

In an effort to educate the public, Academy Award-winning Actress Marlee Matlin, who is deaf and married to a police officer, has created a video that explains what rights a deaf or hard of hearing person has in a police-related situation. Matlin uses ASL in the video, and it is also captioned and voiced. Watch the video here.

The First Responders of Spokane, Washington, have put together a captioned and voiced training video for how law enforcement and emergency responders can best communicate with the deaf and hard of hearing. Watch the video here.

“There are existing laws that cover the fact that deaf people have a right to accessibility,” Woods said. “In this day and age it is inexcusable for someone to work within law enforcement or medical settings and not ensure compliance with those laws. The Americans with Disability Act has been in effect since July 26, 1990. It is time for training and education.”

The Best Thing You Can Do When Pulled Over

Greater advocacy within the deaf and hearing loss community is needed when it comes to law enforcement situations.

One of the most important things motorists who are deaf or hard of hearing need is a visor indicating they cannot hear. Click on either visor image featured above or click this Google link, and print from your computer the visor message of your choosing. Then clip this message on your car visor. After getting pulled over and before the officer approaches your vehicle, unclip the visor message and place it over your steering wheel. Roll down your driver side window. When the officer stands next to your car, keep both hands on the steering wheel and say ‘I am deaf’ or ‘I am hard of hearing.’ The officer will also see your visor message in front of you. From that point on, watch the officer closely for visual cues on how he or she wants you to proceed. If you still do not understand the officer’s words, repeat ‘I am deaf (or hard of hearing). I did not understand what you just said because I couldn’t hear you. Would you please write down what you just said?’ If you are unable to speak, motion your head in the direction of the visor message, which will explain that you cannot hear.

“I would love to see more of the deaf community become knowledgeable about how the legal system works and become advocates for themselves and each other as they deal with people within law enforcement and medical settings,” Woods added.

Readers: Your Opinions Are Important

Lipreading Mom wants to know your thoughts on the topic of law enforcement training in the area of hearing loss and deafness. What do you think the training should consist of?

Have you been in a police-related situation? Did you disclose your hearing loss or deafness? Why or why not?

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20 thoughts on “When You Get Pulled Over and Can’t Hear: The Pearl Pearson Story

  1. Talking about the policeman beating up a Deaf person ! Gee ! Talk about a judge that bully a monderate to servre Deaf. Own family member the judge(sister) brother bull bully since birth till now! When I we were growing up she sue bully me that I would never finish high school ! That I was nothing but a Deaf Hog. She would say that my dad told her that I was not good for nothing. My dad was a Doctor ! He got discourage when I was a small little boy that couldn’t speak right, or have a conversation ! My early young age I was put in a down sydrome and kid with polio back in the 60’s. So my dad was disappointed that I was low functioning retardo ! So I couldn’t carry out his name. So he persude my sister that bully me all my infant to young youth man. She is a city judge that still bully me. Because she play judge in the family too !!! She always want to see me down. But I have come a long way ! Now I am one of the top (Best in the southwest) Educational & Sport Interpreter for the school district and NMSU. Plus a Realtor ! Smile, Deafie Kenn

      • Before a few month before he past away ! He cried and said that I never depended on him and that he was so proud of me that I have successful made on my own without depending on him ! He said he wish he could have done for me more ! Smile. Kenneth Kurita Jr.

    • Kenneth – So glad to read your comment. While I certainly am saddened that you have experienced bullying firsthand, I am happy to read about your hard work and accomplishments today. Bravo!

  2. Thanks for blogging about this important issue. I have never really thought about how a deaf person handles being stopped by the police. What a difficult and anxiety-provoking situation. The potential for misunderstanding is so great! Yes, there should be more training for the police. Everyone has the right to be treated with courtesy, and training will help police officers to be more understanding and not to react emotionally to someone who communicates in a different way.

  3. I agree the Pearl Pearson case is egregious and thank you for publicizing it. But I also wonder if it’s safe to be driving when you can’t hear an emergency vehicle behind you. I have severe hearing loss but I have trained myself to keep my eyes on the rear and side view mirrors. I like your blog, Lipreading Mom, but all of us with hearing loss need to train ourselves to be more aware of what’s on the road. Being trailed by a police car with its siren on for two miles and not noticing it isn’t safe. Especially with kids in the car.

    • Katherine – That is a valid response. Let me clarify what happened when I was pulled over. It was 1993, I was 19 years old, I had no children then, and I did not have a hearing loss diagnosis. An audiologist misdiagnosed me as a child with having normal hearing even though I struggled to hear in class; no second opinions were sought by my parents since they trusted this audiologist’s opinion. While driving, I had the radio turned on too loud since I had trouble hearing. The sun was rising in the east, and I was driving toward the sunrise, so the sun glare was in my eyes and I had to focus to keep my eyes on the road ahead. When I first noticed the patrol car behind me, I thought it was responding to another emergency, so I slowed down and attempted to move out of his way. When he continued to tail me, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh! He’s chasing after ME.’ Then I pulled the car to the shoulder and stopped, turning my radio and car off. The highway patrolman yelled at me to ‘Get out of the car…now!’ I did hear that, and I immediately stepped out of my car. He told me to come to his squad car and sit in the front seat. While I sat in his squad car, he told me that his car had followed mine for two miles. I told him I had no idea, and I didn’t. Then he wrote me an $80 ticket for going more than 10 miles over the turnpike’s speed limit. I had been in a hurry to get to Stillwater, Oklahoma, from Chickasha, Oklahoma, which are two hours apart, in order to see my younger sister compete in her high school state finals drama tournament. I slept through my alarm that morning. So my mistakes were: 1) I should never have been speeding and 2) I should have questioned my parents and the audiologist when they told me I did not have a hearing loss. But I didn’t because I was a child and I trusted my parents. Sigh… Since that incident, I have learned to be more visually aware of my surroundings while driving, and I watch my speed level. Eight years later, at the age of 27, I returned to a different audiologist to have my hearing tested since I developed tinnitus (ringing of the ears) upon giving birth to my first child. That’s when I was officially diagnosed with progressive hearing loss. And since the diagnosis, I always let officers know that I have hearing loss. Fortunately, I rarely get pulled over since I watch my speed. (Smile)

      Thank you for reading and commenting, Katherine. I am a great fan of your writing.

    • I am hearing, and my daughter listens to the radio. When it’s on, and up, and the air conditioner is full blast, I often can’t hear emergency vehicles, either. When I lived in Las Vegas, I was almost hit by an ambulance on “The Strip” because I didn’t notice the lights among all of the other flashing lights on the street. People who are in full possession of all faculties sometimes don’t see/hear emergency vehicles. It’s certainly not a reason not to drive. Like you said, it may require retraining to be more observant in other ways. But it’s also ZERO excuse for an irritated officer to beat the crap out of anyone.

  4. Our friend was arrested after his truck hit a pole. He was unable to phone or speak when people offered to help, so 911 was called. Although he was not abused, he was cuffed (lost his voice), taken to jail–all without benefit of an interpreter. He inspired us with his emotion and story.

    Because of him, we designed our own card at Hear Fayette, St. Vincent de Paul in Uniontown PA. First, we spoke to Pennsylvania state troopers and local police and paramedics and one firefighter. Then we worked, studied, and designed. Our card is shown on our Facebook page Hear Fayette Program.

    We keep in touch with our local police departments and local barracks of state police, sharing videos about drivers who are deaf or hard of hearing. We promote our hard plastic-covered visor cards–almost 1000 out there so far.

    Blessings to all. Educate yourself and the first responders in your area.

  5. Pingback: Readers Respond to Pearl Pearson’s Police Assault Story | Lipreading Mom

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