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Accommodating people with limited access to language is a rare problem in U.S. courts, but one that judges have met with limited success.

In a recent article, Michele LaVigne, clinical professor of law and director of the Public Defender Project at the UW Law School, discusses the challenge involved in such cases.

"The law is a language-based system," she notes, referencing the Montgomery County case of Juan Jose Gonzalez Luna, who is deaf, mute, and illiterate, including no known knowledge of sign language. "Drop someone in who can't access that immediately, and we still don't know what to do with them."

LaVigne has experience working to improve the quality of justice for deaf and hard of hearing individuals. As a public defender assigned to a child protection case in which the parents were deaf, she learned how inaccessible the legal system could be for those who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Since joining the UW Law School, LaVigne has continued her involvement in research and litigation on the rights of deaf defendants. Among other projects, she has trained attorneys from around the country to improve their representation of deaf and hard of hearing clients and helped develop an innovative mock trial program at the Wisconsin School for the Deaf.

Recently, she co-authored an article in the Wisconsin Law Review exploring the intertwined issues of deafness, language, interpretation, and their cumulative effect on deaf people's ability to participate in the justice system.

For LaVigne, the path continues to be a rewarding one: “I've been lucky enough to work with many talented individuals from the deaf and hard-of-hearing community,” she says, “and they have been very generous with their knowledge.”

Submitted by UW Law News on October 28, 2016

This article appears in the categories: In the Media

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