Lost in interpretation: Egypt’s deaf struggle for equal access to justice
Illustration showing Defendant Mohamed Shoeib raising paper reads “I am deaf and Mute” at court, by Cartoonist Ehab el-Nouby

CAIRO: “Mr. Judge, I am deaf and mute, I have nothing to do with all of this, I want nothing but my freedom,” read a paper raised by Mohamed Shoeib last month from behind a sound-proof dock that included 135 defendants.

Deaf or hard-of-hearing defendants rarely have full access to their trial, as interpreters are provided only during first sessions and court interrogations, according to interviews conducted by The Cairo Post with lawyers and sign language interpreters.

However, in Shoeib’s case, no interpreters have attended thus far, which may be grounds for a mistrial, since the defendant is unable to follow the trial against him, according to his lawyer Mokhtar Hassan.

Hassan said that during his interrogation, an interpreter attended, and Shoeib denied charges of unauthorized protests and destruction of public facilities drawn against him in the case known as “Helwan Brigades.”

Shoeib learns about the sessions from his peers in the dock, who wrote his sign for him, and use rudimentary hand signs for communication, his lawyer said.

As stipulated in 2014 constitution and the international convention on rights of persons with disabilities, defendants with special needs “should have effective access to justice on equal basis with others.”

There are no precise statistics on the number of deaf persons in Egypt; however, some experts estimate that between 3-4 million of the total population have a hearing impairment.

 

Gap en route to justice

Illustration by Cartoonist Ehab el-Nouby

Illustration by Cartoonist Ehab el-Nouby

 

“Deaf people do not understand law as they were not taught about it, which creates a gap between them and legal authorities,” Sign Language Expert at state TV, Raafat Helmy, told The Cairo Post.

Helmy said that in case the deaf person is a plaintiff, and does not have an interpreter, people might consider him crazy as he keep screaming, “He is not; he just wants to communicate to defend his right.”

 

Illustration by Cartoonist Ehab el-Nouby

Illustration by Cartoonist Ehab el-Nouby

 

There are hard-of-hearing defendants who can talk slowly and people understand them quite well, added Helmy, who continued saying that the problem occurs when a deaf person does not know sign language, “in this case, he is considered with multi-disability as communication with him might be impossible.”

A deaf man turned himself in a few years ago for stabbing a man who used to come to his house and threaten his wife, but the officer first did not understand his signs and discharged him before he ordered his arrest following a hospital report, Helmy added.

Interpreter Mahmoud Fathy, who is also a lawyer, said that the deaf are often not aware of street signs or restricted zones, adding that once a man was arrested after he took a picture of a minaret close to a court, where photography is banned.

Fathy said that the absence of interpreters sometimes prompts the officer to resort to a compromise to release the deaf person, in case the accusation is “minor.”

 

Lost in interpretation

Sign language interpreter during Friday’s sermon and prayer at Azhar Mosque for the first time on September, 18, 2015. Photo by Hassan MohamedYoum7

Sign language interpreter during Friday’s sermon and prayer at Azhar Mosque for the first time on September, 18, 2015. Photo by Hassan MohamedYoum7

 

“There are few professional interpreters in Egypt; those are usually those who were born to deaf parents or who chose to be interpreters because they like sign language,” Nadia Abdullah, a lawyer and a sign language interpreter said.

Abdullah has previously appealed faulty interpretation in a case in which a deaf man was accused of murder, although he said he was a passerby near the scene.

Although sign language is her “mother-tongue” as she was born to a deaf family, Abdullah said she cannot be both a lawyer and an interpreter together at court, but she can “monitor” interpreters’ performance “to guard her client’s rights.”

“That’s why I am on a project to teach lawyers sign language,” added Abdullah, who heads a syndicate that graduates 10-15 interpreters each year.

Sign Language training course for tourist guides. Photo courtesy of Syndicate for Sign Language interpreters

Sign Language training course for tourist guides. Photo courtesy of Syndicate for Sign Language interpreters in February 2016.

 

There is no official body that graduates or accredits sign language interpreters; many persons employed by courts have only previously volunteered at charity associations or work as teachers at state-run schools for deaf students, especially in rural governorates.

“Teachers tend to interpret the overall meaning of the signs by defendants, and might disregard important details,” commented sign language expert Helmy, who referred to “low quality” of education approach at deaf schools “where students are not updated with new signs.”

There are a total of 190 state-run special schools for deaf students across the country; teachers were hired through a governmental training program that has been halted since 2010, Ahmed Adam, Advisor for Special Education at Ministry of Education told The Cairo Post, adding that the mission is soon to resume.

“Although it happens rarely, but if there is shortage in number of teachers at special schools, we sometimes summon teachers from ordinary schools,” said Adam, noting that sign language is not the only way to communicate with deaf as “lip-reading” is also a valid method.

He added that a new academic sign dictionary has been recently ratified and will be distributed among schools.

 

Challenges facing interpreters

As most of interpreters are volunteers, professionals face a challenge to depend on sign language as source of livelihood, addressing the state to provide fixed “financial insurance” and “official credence.”

In Upper Egypt’s Asyut, teacher Saad Noaman has worked as an interpreter for the past 25 years and was summoned to courts in his town and outside the governorate.

“I pay for travels when summoned to other governorates without being secured or given any reward, although we [interpreters] help them to proceed with the cases,” Noaman told The Cairo Post, adding, “When I ask about compensation, they tell me I am on a national duty.”

Sign Language Expert Helmy cited other challenges including their personal security, as many of them get threatened for “refusing to rig the interpretation” in some cases.

Some non-governmental associations for deaf are seeking to sign protocols with ministries to guarantee that only “qualified interpreters” are summoned to courts and other events.

Members of the Qualitative Union for the Deaf raising signs referring to the union, Photo courtesy of Interpreter Raafat Helmy

Members of the Qualitative Union for the Deaf raising signs referring to the union, Photo courtesy of Raafat Helmy

 

Founded by self-efforts, the Qualitative Union for the Deaf and Hearing-impaired persons was licensed in 2013 and has combined around 45 associations from across the country together “to defend the rights of the deaf who have been marginalized for decades,” said head of union Safaa Mohamed, who is a hearing-impaired person that can talk slowly and do lip-reading.

Egypt’s parliament is soon to discuss a comprehensive draft law on persons with disabilities, Member of Parliament and ex-head of National Council for People with disabilities Heba Hagras told The Cairo Post. She said that “interpreting the parliament’s sessions” and “giving credence to interpreters” are among posing demands, which will be put on discussions table as happened in interpreting Friday sermons debut last year.

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